Going back to work and worried about catching COVID? You’re not alone


As provinces move to remove most COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandatesmany employees are returning to work, whether they like it or not.

And an Angus Reid/CBC poll conducted in March suggests that many do not. More than half of respondents (56%) said they would look for another job if asked to return to the office, and nearly a quarter (23%) said they would quit immediately.

Beyond work-life balance, some simply fear being exposed to COVID-19 by being in indoor spaces that may not have adequate ventilation and no longer require masks or vaccinations.

“You now find yourself sitting face to face with people who are not wearing masks, who are, you know, uncertain about their vaccination status, who now travel daily on the GO train or the subway,” said Mark Kozicki, senior executive at a financial institution in Toronto.

Even the federal government wants to maintain the hybrid model for Parliament due to COVID.

“This pandemic continues, and so does the need for flexibility,” House Leader Mark Holland said.

But not everyone has this option. And now?

Doctors recommend workers wear a mask if they have to work indoors with inadequate ventilation. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Is it safe to return to work?

“If you have a return-to-work policy, you will have an increase in cases,” said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Center.

But whether a workplace is “safe” depends on whether you’re working in a private or open space, and whether there’s adequate ventilation.

“Very simply,” Vinh said, “the only thing you can control is your vaccination status and your masking.”

WATCH | Back to the office versus working from home:

How workplaces are dealing with the return-to-work dilemma

Ian Hanomansing speaks with Klaryssa Pangilinan, Head of People and Culture at Daily Hive, and Erin Bury, Co-Founder and CEO of Willful, about how their workplaces are handling the complicated decision to bring employees back in the office.

Kozicki, who has been working from home during the pandemic, recently returned to his office three days a week. But it was a different place. It’s in a smaller work area, with fewer individual desks and more people sitting closer together, often face to face, with no barriers between them.

It’s “the polar opposite of what we’ve been told for the past two years,” he said — a “very close set of neighborhoods” of people who might be infected with COVID, might spread it or fail to protect themselves. .

Vinh says while distance is always important in limiting COVID transmission, ventilation is even more so.

“The problem,” he said, “is that there hasn’t been a major effort to improve ventilation across the country.”

He says that on sunny days, open the windows if possible. Try not to meet in small rooms with the door closed and ask your employer for portable air filtering devices.

Any workplace that doesn’t have “hospital-grade” ventilation, he said, should consider asking people to wear masks indoors. This means an N95 or equivalent.

The ventilation system of a building in the ceiling.
A doctor says any workplace without “hospital level” ventilation should make adequate masks available to its workers. (Radio Canada)

Can I refuse to return to the office if I don’t feel safe?

“There’s probably not a lot of room for an employee to outright refuse an instruction to return to work,” said Ryan Macklon, a Vancouver labor and human rights lawyer.

But there are exceptions – say if the employee has a legitimate medical reason not to be vaccinated.

“So it’s probably the case that the employer has to provide accommodation,” Macklon said.

This could include continuing to work from home, alternating days in the office so the space is less crowded, allowing employees to change workspaces for an appropriate distance, or moving to a quieter corner. with less traffic and less person-to-person interaction.

Should I be worried about going back if I’m not vaccinated?

This one is easy, according to Vinh. At this point, less than three doses of vaccine would put an individual at higher risk of catching COVID-19.

“If you’re not at least three doses, or three doses plus one or two boosters, depending on your comorbidity and a bunch of other factors, you’re not fully vaccinated,” he said. “And so, yes, you should be concerned.”

I am fully vaccinated, but my unvaccinated colleagues are also back. Are they putting me in danger?

Not really, because while vaccines were initially effective at preventing serious disease and transmission, with Omicron they have become less effective at preventing symptomatic infections, according to Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at the McMaster University in Hamilton.

“So if the people sitting next to you are vaccinated at one dose, two doses, three doses, recovered from COVID, you know, they’re all at the same relative risk of having COVID or having protection against a symptomatic infection,” he told CBC Radio. Ontario today In Monday.

Some workplaces have explored creating separate spaces for vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.

But Chagla says imposing mask mandates would likely do more to reduce transmission.

Separating people based on their vaccination status is “not very effective and can really cause a lot of harm and embarrassment,” he said.

Should I be worried about desktop sharing?

Not so much in terms of catching COVID-19, which is transmitted primarily through the air. But keeping surfaces such as computer stations or telephones sanitized will help limit the transmission of other illnesses such as colds or the flu.

A workstation with a computer screen, keyboard, telephone and television.
Sharing a workstation won’t necessarily increase the risk of contracting COVID, but not sanitizing could increase the risk of a cold or flu. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

What recourse do I have if I fall ill because I had to go to work?

Not much, according to Macklon.

“Very generally, can I sue my business because I had COVID at work? We’ll probably say no,” he said. “We I have not seen any recent cases where an employer has been held liable for an employee who has fallen ill on the job.”

WATCH | Falling ill on the way to work:

Growing Concern for COVID-Related Workplace Deaths and Injuries

As more companies call workers back on-site, there are concerns that this could lead to an increase in workplace deaths and injuries related to COVID-19. Advocates want to ensure that employers take adequate steps to reduce the risk of exposure in the workplace.

Vinh says employers should want to keep their workers healthy.

“If their workforce gets sick and has to miss work, that’s actually less productive than even working from home,” he said.

Are employers responsible for preventing harassment or bullying around masking?

Macklon says employers are governed by workplace safety legislation in each province and must provide a safe space “free from bullying and harassment.” He says most large employers probably have policies that should be broad enough to include any harassment issues related to masking.

The Angus Reid Institute surveyed 2,550 adults online March 1-4, 2022, who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. A probability sample of this size would have a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The survey was conducted in partnership with CBC.