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

As provinces move to drop most COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates, many employees are returning to the workplace — whether they like it or not. 

And an Angus Reid/CBC poll conducted in March suggests many do not. More than half of respondents (56 per cent) said they would look for another job if asked to return to the office, with almost a quarter (23 per cent) saying they’d quit immediately. 

Over and above work-life balance, some are simply worried about being exposed to COVID-19 by being in indoor spaces that might not have adequate ventilation and which no longer require masking or vaccination. 

“You’re now finding yourself sitting cheek-to-jowl with individuals who are not wearing masks, who are, you know, uncertain in terms of what their vaccine status is, who are now travelling on a daily basis on the GO train or the subway,” said Mark Kozicki, a senior manager within 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 to have flexibility,” said House leader Mark Holland.

But not everyone has that option. So now what? 

Two workers sit face-to-face in an office wearing masks.
Doctors recommend workers wear a mask if they have to work indoors with inadequate ventilation. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Is it safe to go back to the workplace? 

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

But whether a workplace is “safe” depends on whether you are working in a private or open-concept space, and whether there is adequate ventilation. 

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

WATCH | Back to the office versus work from home: 

returning to work and worried about catching covid youre not alone 1

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

4 days ago

Duration 5:53

Ian Hanomansing speaks to Klaryssa Pangilinan, head of people and culture at Daily Hive, and Erin Bury, co-founder and CEO of Willful, about how their workplaces are navigating the complicated decision of having employees return to the office.

Kozicki, who has worked from home during the pandemic, recently returned to his office three days a week. But it was a different place. He’s in a smaller working area, with fewer individual offices 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 quarters” of people who might be infected with COVID, might be spreading it, or might not be protecting themselves. 

Vinh says while distancing is still important for limiting COVID transmission, ventilation is even more so. 

“The problem,” he said, “is that there hasn’t been a major push for improvement of ventilation across the country.”

He says during the nice weather, open 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 level” ventilation, he said, must consider asking people to wear masks while indoors. That means an N95 or equivalent.

The ventilation system of a building within the ceiling.
One doctor says that any workplace without ‘hospital-level’ ventilation should be making adequate masks available to their workers. (CBC)

Can I refuse to go back to the office if I feel unsafe?

“There’s probably not much room for an employee to flat-out refuse a direction to return to work,” said Ryan Macklon, an employment and human rights lawyer in Vancouver. 

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

“Then it’s probably the case that the employer’s got to offer an accommodation,” said Macklon.

That could include continuing to work from home, alternating days in the office so the space is less crowded, allowing employees to switch workspaces for proper distancing, or to move to a quieter corner with less traffic and less person-to-person interaction.

Should I be worried about going back if I am unvaccinated?

That one is easy, according to Vinh. Anything less than three vaccine doses at this point 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 therefore, yes, you should be concerned.”

I’m fully vaccinated, but my unvaccinated colleagues are back, too. Are they putting me at risk? 

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

“So if the people sitting beside you are one-dosed, two-dosed, three-dosed vaccinated, recovered from COVID, you know, they’re all sitting at the same relative risk of having COVID or having protection against symptomatic infection,” he told CBC Radio’s Ontario Today on Monday.

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

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

Segregating people by vaccination status is “not very effective and can really cause a lot of harms and awkwardness,” he said. 

Should I be concerned about sharing work stations? 

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

A work station with a computer monitor, keyboard, phone and TV.
Sharing a workstation will not necessarily increase an individual’s risk of getting COVID, but failing to disinfect could increase the risk of colds or flu. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC )

What recourse do I have if I get sick because I had to go in to work? 

Not much, according to Macklon. 

“Very generally, can I sue my company because I got COVID at work? We’re going to go with likely no,” he said. “We have not seen any recent cases where an employer has been held liable for an employee getting sick at work.”

WATCH | Getting sick from going to work: 

returning to work and worried about catching covid youre not alone 4

Growing concern for COVID-related workplace deaths, injuries

2 months ago

Duration 2:02

As more companies call workers back on-site, there are concerns it could lead to a rise in workplace deaths and injuries related to COVID-19. Advocates want to ensure employers to take adequate measures to reduce exposure risks in the workplace.

Vinh says employers should want to keep their workers healthy. 

“If their work force becomes sick and has to become absent from work, then that actually is 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 likely have policies that should be broad enough to include any harassment issues around masking.

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

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