Public Service Occupational Health Program COVID-19 Guidance

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Response to the Omicron variant

PSOHP has updated its occupational health guidance in light of emerging evidence on the Omicron variant of concern, and the potential for increased transmissibility, decreased vaccine protection against infection, and higher risk of reinfection. The changes to PSOHP’s COVID-19 guidance are highlighted below:

COVID-19 vaccination

It is recommended that all employees of the core public administration receive a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine when they are eligible to do so in their jurisdiction.

Building occupancy and physical distancing

Departments and agencies should pause planned increases to building occupancy, review current occupancy levels to ensure physical distancing can be maintained (when operationally feasible) and consider increasing remote work as required. Organizations should maintain the flexibility to adjust further should transmission rates increase, taking into account operational requirements and local public health considerations.

Masks

Masks should be worn in all indoor shared spaces, even when physical distancing is maintained.

Travel and meetings

Departments should avoid non-essential international travel, taking into account travel advisories. Avoid any discretionary large gatherings, such as non-essential training events or conferences.

Introduction

This guidance applies following the full implementation of the Policy on COVID-19 Vaccination for the Core Public Administration Including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on November 15, 2021, when there is regular rapid testing of employees who are unable to be fully vaccinated and are required to be on-site.

COVID-19 vaccination, when combined with public health measures and preventive practices, lowers the risk of transmission and of serious illness for the vaccinated.

Health Canada's Public Service Occupational Health Program (PSOHP) has developed this guidance to provide an occupational health framework to support Departments and Agencies in planning for re-entry into their workplaces.

This guidance is not prescriptive; federal departments and agencies will have unique approaches to implementing preventive practices, tailored to their work settings and employee functions, and taking into account local COVID-19 considerations and public health advice.

Deputy Heads are ultimately responsible for the health and safety of their employees. Departments and Agencies should continue to work with their Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) resources and committees.

The guidance in this document is grounded in the latest science and has been informed by the most recent advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and will continue to be updated as the COVID-19 situation in Canada evolves.

Health Canada's PSOHP is responsible for providing occupational health guidance to federal departments and agencies in the core public administration (operationalized as Schedule I and IV of the Financial Administration Act). It may also be appropriate for other federal departments and agencies outside of Schedule I and IV (i.e., separate employers) to consider these recommendations for their federally-regulated workplace.

COVID-19 vaccination

Under the Policy on COVID-19 Vaccination for the Core Public Administration Including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, all employees of the core public administration will be fully vaccinated unless accommodated based on a certified medical contraindication, religion, or another prohibited ground for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

The Policy outlines accommodation measures for those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons or due to prohibited grounds for discrimination.

It is recommended that all employees of the core public administration receive a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine when they are eligible to do so in their jurisdiction.

Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to protect colleagues, clients, families, communities, and individuals against COVID-19. Evidence shows that vaccines are effective at preventing serious outcomes, such as severe illness, hospitalization, and death due to COVID-19.

Only vaccines authorized by Health Canada that are proven to be safe, effective, and of high quality are approved for use in Canada.

Even though COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing serious outcomes, no vaccines are 100 per cent effective. Additional preventive practices, as outlined in this document, are needed to help protect against COVID-19.

COVID-19 vaccines are designed to protect against COVID-19. They do not offer protection against any other virus including influenza. As a result, it is recommended that employees also get an annual flu shot to protect against the influenza virus.

For more information on vaccines and vaccination, please refer to Vaccines for COVID-19.

Workplace preventive practices

Preventive practices are at the foundation of good public health practice to control the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Notwithstanding the fact that all employees working on-site will either be fully vaccinated or tested regularly (i.e., as per approved accommodation for those unable to be fully vaccinated or as a temporary measure for those who are partially vaccinated), it continues to be important to follow appropriate measures in the workplace to help protect everyone (e.g., employees, clients, and visitors). As the pandemic evolves, it is important for Departments and Agencies to consistently use multiple preventive practices in a layered approach.

It is important to keep in mind that some employees, clients, and visitors may choose to maintain personal preventive practices, such as continuing to wear masks, as preventive practices are adjusted in the workplace, even if these measures are no longer mandatory. People who choose or are required to continue using certain personal protective measures due to individual factors, such as vaccination status, health status, living with a household member who is at high risk, or by personal choice, should not be stigmatized.

Building occupancy and physical distancing 

Building occupancy can be gradually increased, potentially up to full occupancy, based on operational requirements, appropriate use of workplace preventive practices, building layout, and local public health considerations, while maintaining the flexibility to adjust should transmission rates increase. The Risk Assessment Tool for Operators may help Departments and Agencies in making the determination of what level of occupancy is appropriate.

Departments and agencies should pause planned increases to building occupancy, review current occupancy levels to ensure physical distancing can be maintained (when operationally feasible) and consider increasing remote work as required. Organizations should maintain the flexibility to adjust further should transmission rates increase, taking into account operational requirements and local public health considerations. The Risk Assessment Tool for Operators may help Departments and Agencies in making the determination of what level of occupancy is appropriate.

Departments and Agencies should maximize physical distancing in indoor spaces when the setting or operations allow (e.g., space workstations at least 2 metres apart, where operationally feasible).

Continue to use a mechanism to track employee and visitor attendance upon building arrival and exit, to support contact tracing in the event of a positive COVID-19 case being reported, and to ensure compliance with the Policy on COVID-19 Vaccination for the Core Public Administration Including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Masks in the workplace

Masks are an important public health measure that can help prevent the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 – they protect others and can also help protect the wearer.

How well a mask works depends on the materials used, how the mask is made, and how well it fits. For more information on the type, quality and fit of masks, please refer to materials, construction and fit.

In the workplace, Departments and Agencies will continue to provide employees with masks and instructions about their appropriate use and disposal. Departments and Agencies may also allow employees to use their own mask in the workplace, as long as it adheres to the available advice about type, quality and fit.

Wearing masks indoors

Wear a mask in all indoor shared spaces even when physical distancing is maintained.

Additional guidance on masks is provided under Meetings, and Elevators, entrances, hallways, and facilities.

Even when not required, employees can choose to wear masks based on their personal risk and comfort level.

Wearing masks outdoors

Masks are not required outdoors.

Even when not required, employees can choose to wear masks in shared outdoor spaces.

Meetings

In-person meetings can be conducted, using the appropriate safety measures.

All meeting participants should wear a mask, and maintain physical distancing of at least 2 metres.

Maximize the ventilation in the room by leaving the door open, if possible.

Limit the number of participants and the length of meetings.

Avoid any discretionary large gatherings, such as non-essential training events or conferences.

Interacting with clients, visitors or the public

The vaccination status of clients, visitors and the public is unknown. As a result:

Continue to minimize in-person interactions and maximize physical distancing with clients (at least 2 metres), visitors or the public, based on operational requirements.

Employees should wear masks when interacting indoors with clients, visitors or the public, even if physical distancing is maintained.

Clients, visitors, and the public should wear masks at all times in indoor federal settings, even if physical distancing can be maintained.

Elevators, entrances, hallways, and facilities

Restrictions on workflow and movement in hallways and stairwells can be relaxed. Masks should be worn.

Normal occupancy requirements can be re-instated in elevators. All occupants should be instructed to wear a mask in elevators.

Water fountains and shower facilities can be opened with infection prevention and control measures that are appropriate to the risk in that setting.

Shared spaces such as lunchrooms and cafeterias can be used. Layout should be configured to allow physical distancing of at least 2 metres during breaks and meals. Employees should be encouraged to eat with as few other people as possible.

Allow access to common items in the lunchroom or cafeteria (e.g., coffee machines, kettles, dishes and cutlery, etc.). Appropriate preventive measures should be used according to the risk in that setting.

All high-touch surfaces in common areas should be regularly cleaned and disinfected following guidance under Cleaning and disinfecting.

Staying home when sick

Staying at home when ill should be part of a normal routine in the workplace, now and after the pandemic.

Employees who are ill should not leave home and should not enter the workplace. This includes any individual who is experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, or other respiratory illness (e.g., influenza), have tested positive for COVID-19 or other respiratory illness, are awaiting a COVID-19 test result, or have been instructed to quarantine or isolate by the local public health authority.

If someone starts showing symptoms of COVID-19 while in the workplace:

Preventing individuals who are ill from entering the workplace

Employees, clients, and visitors should be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and risk of exposure to COVID-19 prior to entering the workplace. This can be done through the use of signage (“passive screening”) or by directly asking people the screening questions prior to entry (“active screening”).

Whether active or passive, screening language should include the following:

Stop. Do not enter this facility if you have been:

Individuals who respond “yes” to any screening questions above should return home immediately. They should avoid public transportation, and contact their health care provider or local public health authority, and follow their advice.

For passive screening, signage can be placed at the entrances stipulating that employees, clients, and visitors should put on a medical mask (if available) and immediately isolate themselves away from others and return home if they are experiencing any symptoms associated with COVID-19 (avoiding public transportation), and contact their healthcare provider or local public health authority, and follow their advice.

In some settings, active screening measures may be considered to prevent individuals who are ill from entering the workplace. If active screening is conducted in person, it should take place in a well-ventilated area and the screener should be at the greatest physical distance possible from others, wearing a mask, consider using a physical barrier if appropriate, and following Corporate OHS Program directives.

The use of temperature screening is not recommended as part of the active screening process in federal workplaces.

Additionally, at some worksites, rapid testing is being used as another tool, either on a voluntary basis or as an accommodation for employees who are unable to be fully vaccinated or as a temporary measure for those who are partially vaccinated, and are required to work on-site.

Ventilation

Ventilation is an important part of reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses (e.g., influenza) indoors, now and after the pandemic.

Maintain good quality indoor environmental conditions as required by the National Joint Council Occupational Health and Safety Directive.

Open doors and windows regularly to improve fresh air flow whenever it is possible and safe to do so. Consider factors such as outdoor air quality, airflow velocities, and the impact on temperature and humidity control, building pressurization, security, and risk for weather damage. Consult with the property manager on what is appropriate in your building.

Many buildings use a central heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system with vents in the ceiling, walls, or floor. The property manager should consult an HVAC professional to determine whether the system is operating properly, is suitable for the type of setting, activity, and number of occupants, and whether the outdoor air exchange rate can be increased.

Ensure routine maintenance is performed, vents and fans are kept clear, and that filters are well sealed. Install the highest efficiency filter that is compatible with the HVAC system and replace it at least as often as recommended by the manufacturer.

Run the HVAC system continuously during occupied hours. As well, operate the HVAC systems at maximum outdoor airflow for two hours before and after occupancy.

Portable air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can reduce the amount of some viruses in the air when used properly, and could serve as an additional layer of protection. The Department or Agency should select an air purifier with a clean air delivery rate (CADR) that is high enough for the size of the room in which it will be located.

Portable fans, ceiling fans, and single-unit air conditioners do not improve ventilation (introduce fresh air) and may circulate the virus in a space. If they must be used, avoid having the air stream blowing directly at or between room occupants.

For more information on ventilation, refer to: COVID-19: Guidance on indoor ventilation during the pandemic.

Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette

Hand hygiene is always a good practice and should continue as part of an individual's normal routine, especially during the winter cold and influenza season.

Hand hygiene includes frequent hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Departments and Agencies should refer to the list of hand sanitizers approved for sale in Canada.

For more tips on effective hand washing, refer to Reduce the Spread of COVID-19 – Wash Your Hands.

In the workplace, Departments and Agencies will continue to provide employees with hand-sanitizing stations, including at building entrances. Signage should be placed in the workplace to remind employees to wash their hands properly and regularly.

Employees should wash hands regularly, including before handling, preparing, serving, or eating food, before and after touching their mask, after using the bathroom, as well as after contacting frequently-touched surfaces and objects.

If hands are visibly soiled, use of soap and water is recommended.

Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

Employees should cough or sneeze into a tissue or the bend of their arm, not their hand (even if wearing a mask). Dispose of any tissues as soon as possible in a plastic-lined waste container, and clean hands immediately afterwards.

Cleaning and disinfecting

Cleaning and disinfecting are effective practices to limit the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses, and should be a continued part of the routine in the workplace.

Provide the necessary cleaning and disinfecting facilities, and products to maintain a clean and safe workplace. This includes products such as wipes for employees to use for their workstation, telephones, computer keyboards, etc.

Provide employees performing cleaning or disinfecting with any personal protective equipment recommended by occupational health and safety guidelines, and training to ensure it is used correctly.

Ensure that high-traffic work areas or frequently touched surfaces, such as elevator buttons, door handles, kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures, water fountain knobs and push buttons, are cleaned and disinfected in accordance with Department or Agency's OHS protocol for high-touch points.

Employees must keep their personal workspaces clean and observe a “Clean In. Clean Out” protocol, cleaning their workstation when arriving and then again when they depart.

In addition, this approach also applies to shared or unassigned workstations, meeting rooms, photocopier rooms/equipment, and lunch break rooms (tables, counters, microwaves, kitchen appliances, dishes).

Please refer to Health Canada's list of hard-surface disinfectants and COVID-19: Cleaning and disinfecting for further information.

Additional measures for employees unable to be fully vaccinated and required to work on-site

The Policy on COVID-19 Vaccination for the Core Public Administration Including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police outlines accommodation measures for those who are unable to be fully vaccinated for medical reasons or due to prohibited grounds for discrimination.

If an employee is unable to be vaccinated and is required to be on-site, or is partially vaccinated and is awaiting their required second dose, the employee will be required to:

Summary table: Workplace preventive practices

Situation Preventive practices
Building occupancy and physical distancing

Departments and agencies should pause planned increases to building occupancy, review current occupancy levels to ensure physical distancing can be maintained (when operationally feasible) and consider increasing remote work as required. Organizations should maintain the flexibility to adjust further should transmission rates increase, taking into account operational requirements and local public health considerations.

Maximize physical distancing in indoor spaces when the setting or operations allow (e.g. spread out workstations at least 2 metres where operationally feasible).

Masks in the workplace

Indoors:

  • Wear a mask in all indoor shared spaces even when physical distancing is maintained.
  • Even when not required, employees can choose to wear masks based on their personal risk and comfort level.

Outdoors:

  • Masks are not required outdoors. Even when not required, employees can choose to wear masks in shared outdoor spaces.
Meetings

In-person meetings can be conducted, using the appropriate safety measures:

  • All meeting participants should wear a mask, and maintain physical distancing of at least 2 metres.
  • Maximize the ventilation in the room by leaving the door open, if possible.
  • Limit the number of participants and the length of meetings.
  • Avoid any discretionary large gatherings, such as non-essential training events or conferences.

Interacting with Clients, Visitors or the Public

  • Continue to minimize in-person interactions and maintain physical distancing of at least 2 metres based on operational requirements.
  • Employees should wear masks when interacting indoors with clients, visitors or the public, even if physical distancing is maintained.
  • Clients, visitors and the public should wear masks at all times in indoor federal settings, even if physical distancing can be maintained.
Elevators, Entrances, Hallways, and Facilities
  • Restrictions on workflow and movement in hallways and stairwells can be relaxed. Masks should be worn.
  • Normal occupancy requirements can be re-instated in elevators. All occupants should be instructed to wear a mask in elevators.
  • Water fountains and shower facilities can be opened.
  • Shared spaces such as lunchrooms and cafeterias can be used.
  • Allow access to common items in the lunchroom or cafeteria.
Continued Preventive Practices
  • Staying home when sick
  • Preventing individuals who are ill from entering the workplace
  • Ventilation
  • Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette
  • Cleaning and disinfecting
Travel
  • Avoid non-essential international travel, taking into account travel advisories.

Considerations for workplaces at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission

Some workplaces with a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission, such as settings with people who are at risk of more severe disease or outcomes (e.g., vulnerable clients, health care settings); or if the setting is congregate living (e.g., correctional facilities; dormitories for operational training programs), may consider implementing more rigorous COVID-19 infection prevention and controls. Departments and Agencies should also take into account the local COVID-19 situation and public health advice.

Departments and Agencies at higher risk may consider:

Rapid testing in public service organizations

In addition to passive and active screening, rapid testing is another tool that can be used to help prevent individuals who are ill from entering the worksite.

Under the Policy on COVID-19 Vaccination in the Core Public Administration Including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, there is a requirement for serial testing of federal employees who are unable to be fully vaccinated for whom there is a duty to accommodate and who need to be physically present at federal or third-party worksites, or as a temporary measure for individuals who are partially vaccinated.

Additionally, as part of a broader federal action plan to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the Government of Canada has expanded the use of voluntary rapid testing for screening purposes for select public sector worksites where there is a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission (e.g., Correctional Services Canada, Canadian Coast Guard).

Rapid tests, in combination with public health measures, are an additional measure to help curb the spread of the virus by identifying employees who are not showing symptoms of infection, but who may be carrying COVID-19. Rapid testing does not replace preventive practices. Employees are encouraged to participate in voluntary rapid testing programs if they are offered at their worksite.

Personal protective equipment

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are items worn to provide a barrier to help prevent potential exposure to hazards such as infectious disease. There may be some work settings where PPE is recommended to decrease the risk of exposure to COVID-19. In these work settings, employees should be provided the recommended PPE. To the extent possible, different sizes of PPE should be available to accommodate diverse body types.

Outside of the health-care context, PPE should only be used as per the Department or Agency's hazard prevention program, based on a risk assessment that considers both the risk associated with a specific task/activity and the characteristics of the source of the infection (e.g., a person who is ill or a contaminated environment).

Non-medical masks are not personal protective equipment (PPE).

There may be situations where PPE, such as medical masks or respirators, is required rather than non-medical masks. This decision will be based on a risk assessment.

Employees should consult with their Department or Agency's OHS Program for advice as to whether personal protective equipment, including specific masks or respirators, is required in their individual situation.

Gloves are not recommended when handling documents or providing routine services. The improper use of gloves can provide a false sense of security and increase the risk of infection. Hand hygiene is more effective than wearing gloves in preventing infection in most circumstances.

There may be other hazards and risks in a work environment unrelated to COVID-19, such as risk of chemical exposures that require PPE. Please follow existing department or agency occupational health and safety guidance and procedures in these cases.

For further information on PPE, please refer to COVID-19 personal protective equipment.

Travel

Avoid non-essential international travel taking into account travel advisories.

Maximize safety when undertaking travel by using a layered approach with multiple personal preventive practices to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread, including wearing a mask when appropriate.

There may be mandatory quarantine and/or testing requirements for international travel, and some provinces/territories may have their own quarantine and/or testing requirements for travel within Canada.

Some international jurisdictions may also have requirements related to testing or vaccination.

Consider and respect all local, provincial/territorial, and community-specific instructions and guidance in the geographic area of the premises, especially if it is a geographic area with a higher level of community transmission.

For employees that are unable or unwilling to be fully vaccinated, managers should refer to the Policy on COVID-19 Vaccination for the Core Public Administration Including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for further guidance related to travel.

For more information, please refer to federal travel health notices.

Mental health and wellness supports

The COVID-19 pandemic and the public health measures necessary to mitigate its spread continue to create stress for people and communities across Canada, including federal public servants and their families.
This stress can increase in the face of uncertainty, including uncertainty around changing work conditions, or a return to the workplace for employees who have been working remotely.

It is perfectly normal then for employees to feel angry, anxious, lonely, sad or worried.

It is important to acknowledge employee feelings and the disruptions to their lives associated with COVID-19. Engaging in an open dialogue about emotional well-being with colleagues and managers can help to improve and maintain mental health in uncertain times.

In the workplace, it is important to acknowledge this is not business as usual, and some people may have trouble working as effectively as they once did. There is no one right way for an employee to manage their mental health through a pandemic.

If employees are in distress or would like to set up an appointment with a mental health professional, they may contact their Department or Agency's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for counselling (also available in most Departments and Agencies for the immediate family members of employees).

As well, employees and their family members can access the Wellness Together Canada: Mental Health and Substance Use Support portal, an online resource for all Canadians that includes educational content and tools such as mental health assessments, mindfulness resources, and internet-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy supports.

For more information, please consult Mental Health and COVID-19 for Public Servants.

Contact us

If there are any questions or concerns regarding the application of this Guidance, please consult with the applicable Department or Agency's OHS Program.

Related links

Public Health Agency of Canada

Global Affairs Canada

Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer

Justice Canada

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

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