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3 things employers should know about COVID-19 vaccination at work

Occupational health · Apr 13, 2021

With COVID-19 vaccination plans rolling out across Canada, a critical workplace question remains: Can employers mandate that employees be vaccinated?

Under health and safety legislation in Canada, employers are required to protect their workers, but there will always be exceptions when an employee has a sincere human rights claim such as a medical condition. On the other hand, there will be cases (for instance, in settings where employees must interact with vulnerable populations) where the risk of COVID-19 vaccine refusal may be too great, and an employer may be within their right to place an employee on unpaid leave or end the employment relationship.

Employers throughout the country are going to be faced with the difficult task of balancing their duty to provide a safe work environment, employee privacy and human rights.

For all employers - even those in traditionally low risk environments - workplace safety now entails mitigating the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Provincial and federal policies are changing rapidly, but here are 3 things all employers should know about COVID-19 vaccination at work:

1. It’s more important than ever to obtain professional medical oversight.

It’s more important than ever for organizations to have a Chief/Regional Medical Officer (CMO/ RMO), also known as an Occupation Health (OH) Physician, who can provide occupation specific medical and health service support to employers. A medical officer helps organizations navigate regulatory standards and best practices, and helps employers meet their federal and/ or provincial obligations to their workforce. Especially today, this level of medical oversight can ensure organizations have the most up-to date support, medical knowledge, surveillance, protocols, and programs to face the daily occupational challenges that will continue to arise during a global pandemic. TELUS Health Care Centres specializes in providing medical oversight to workforces nationwide. 

2. Employment policies and accommodation programs need to be updated.

Employers may encounter employees who  are not willing or able to be vaccinated for reasons protected by human rights legislation (e.g. disability, religion). But in order to accommodate such cases while still upholding responsibilities under health and safety legislation, new policies and programs may need to be developed in many workplaces. For example, it could be designated that all “essential workers” must be vaccinated for COVID-19, but if an employer has not clearly defined this designation and has not provided sufficient justification from a safety and risk management perspective, it may be unable to act. 

Employers considering the implementation of a vaccination policy should: 

  • Determine the occupations most at risk to COVID-19 and outline how vaccination would help to mitigate that risk

  • Outline the potential accommodations that could be offered by the organization as an alternative to a COVID-19 vaccination, while highlighting those occupations which are and are not applicable

  • Ensure that any and all changes to the employment policy have been reviewed by a legal and medical service provider

  • Outline clearly how the changes to the employment policy will be communicated to the workforce regarding the requirements for COVID-19 vaccination and the consequence of non-compliance

  • Determine how to implement procedures associated with the employment policy consistently as they relate to COVID-19 vaccination

  • Ensure that accommodation and/or employee assistance programs have been updated to reflect the changes as they relate to COVID-19 

3. COVID-19 screening and testing programs will remain essential for many workplaces.

COVID-19 screening and testing programs will continue to be essential for many Canadian employers for the foreseeable future. Even if a legal obligation for COVID-19 vaccination is enacted federally or provincially for certain vulnerable occupations, enforcement will take time. If a screening and testing program is not currently in place or planned for in your return-to-work strategy, consider working with an occupational health specialist to develop one.

Learn more about our Occupational Health services.

Please note that given the rapid modifications to federal and provincial legislation surrounding COVID-19, this information is subject to change and these facts should be validated with your occupational health and safety service provider(s) and Health Canada.

Authored by:
Dr. Farrell Cahill
Occupational health and safety scientist, TELUS Health Care Centres