Providing Safe Workspaces for Essential Services Workers Living with Lung Disease

Our position

The Lung Health Foundation supports efforts to provide safer work environments for the millions of Canadians living with lung disease during the COVID-19 pandemic, including efforts that will limit the potential for virus exposure for those at highest risk of severe complications. 

The Lung Health Foundation also urges the federal government to extend the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to include Canadians who pro-actively self-quarantine due to the severity of their respiratory illness and their increased risk of severe complications.

Background – Ontario

As of March 24 at 11:59 p.m., all non-essential businesses in Ontario were ordered to shut down to curb the spread of COVID-19. These workplaces are to remain shut for a period of two weeks, at which time the government will reassess the situation.

The province released a list of workplaces that are considered essential on March 23rd.  Workplaces that remain open include businesses/non-profits that provide food services, healthcare services, seniors care and social services, infrastructure construction and maintenance, financial services, and more. Also included are the supply chains that support these industries. For the full list of essential workplaces, click here.

Background – Canada

Across Canada, several provinces have ordered the full or partial closure of non-essential workplaces.  Along with Ontario, provinces including Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan have ordered the closure of non-essential businesses. The list of essential businesses differs by province.

In some provinces and territories including British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and the Yukon, there have been partial business closures as a result of COVID-19. For example, British Columbia has ordered the closure of businesses such as restaurants and bars, entertainment venues and casinos. Some non-essential businesses are allowed to remain open if they comply with public health orders.

All workplaces are encouraged to transition to remote or telework if this option is possible.

For Employees

The Lung Health Foundation encourages essential service workers who are living with lung disease and feel that they are at risk to request reasonable accommodations from their employers.

Ontario has implemented new initiatives to keep frontline workers safe. This includes passing Bill 186, Employment Standards Amendment Act (Infectious Disease Emergencies), 2020. Bill 186 addresses when emergency leave is available to employees in case of infectious disease emergencies. To access the content of this Bill, click here.

In addition, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) outlines when a worker has the right to refuse work that they believe is unsafe to themselves or another worker. The Act also provides information on the procedures that must be followed in a work refusal. 

For Employers

Under the OHSA, employers have an obligation to take all reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of workers. Most other provinces and territories have similar legislation in place. The Lung Health Foundation encourages employers of all kinds to provide reasonable accommodations for essential service workers whose lung disease puts them at an increased risk of COVID-19 infection, and who are therefore at a higher risk of developing serious complications from the illness.

Accommodations endorsed by the Lung Health Foundation include offering remote work, organizing work spaces to encourage social distancing including maintaining two metres space between workers when possible, and providing the necessary protective equipment such as gloves.

In addition, we urge employers to grant sick leave to an employee at their request, if they have a severe respiratory illness and other work accommodations cannot be made.

Finally, the Lung Health Foundation urges all employers to maintain smoke-free environments, to accommodate for frequent (paid) handwashing breaks, and to coordinate regular sanitization of work stations and common areas at no cost to their employees.

Please note that as this is a rapidly changing situation, this information is valid as of March 27th, 2020.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this resource are intended only to provide general guidance and in no way constitute legal or professional advice. If you require legal advice, please consult a lawyer.

Key facts

  • COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus. Most people infected with the virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory symptoms, but older adults and people with underlying medical conditions are more likely to develop a serious illness.
  • Chronic respiratory diseases are chronic diseases affecting the airways as well as other parts of the lungs. The most common lung diseases in Canada include asthma (approximately 3.8 million Canadians affected) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 2 million Canadians have been diagnosed with COPD and an estimated 1 million more may suffer from the disease while remaining undiagnosed. COPD is the number one cause of hospitalization in Canada and was the cause of 89,897 hospitalization is 2016-17.
  • Because of the way these conditions affect the lungs, these patients are at an increased risk of developing infectious diseases, including COVID-19. They also tend to experience severe complications with greater frequency than the general population. To date, there have been 4,018 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada and 39 deaths.
  • Lung cancer leaves many of its patients immunocompromised, both due to the illness itself and its treatments. Lung cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada. In 2017, an estimated 28,600 Canadians were diagnosed. Lung cancer patients who are still in the workforce are at an increased risk of developing infectious diseases, including COVID-19. Should they develop it, these patients are highly likely to experience severe complications.
  • Whether working remotely or on site, all Canadians living with chronic lung disease should continue taking steps to keep their conditions well managed and their symptoms under control. Following one’s asthma or COPD action plan is essential, which includes continuing to take maintenance medications as prescribed, and taking reliever medications as needed. All Canadians are encouraged to abstain from smoking and vaping

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