Employers clamp down on ‘ambiguous’ mask rules as more infections tied to workplaces
By Brett Bundale
On the factory floor, masks were optional.
Until last month, workers at TEC Business Solutions’s corrugated packaging plant in Mississauga, Ont. donned a mask, underwent a COVID-19 screening, had a temperature check and sanitized their hands – but once inside and at their own stations, they could remove their masks.
“It gets really warm in there and it can be hard to breathe with a mask,” said Mike Prencipe, the chief operating officer at TEC Business Solutions. “We said if workers can physically distance, they can remove their masks.”
Then two shop workers tested positive for COVID-19, followed by two office employees.
“Everyone around them had to quarantine,” Prencipe said, noting that the bulk of the plant’s workforce had to stay home for two weeks. “We’ve now made it our own policy that if you’re in the plant, you have to wear a mask at all times.”
The small outbreak at the Ontario packaging plant illustrates how workplaces are emerging as a driving force in the second wave of the pandemic.
A growing number of infections can be traced back to workplaces, including in manufacturing, warehouse and shipping facilities, according to Ontario data on active outbreaks by setting.
The province declared a second state of emergency Tuesday amid rising COVID-19 case counts and tightened rules around masks in workplaces among other measures.
More than 10,000 workers have contracted COVID-19 due to work-related exposures, statistics from the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board show.
One of the issues that appears to be fuelling workplace infections is the lack of clarity or consistency surrounding mask-wearing rules in workplaces in Canada.
Across the country, each province and in some cases individual health units or workplace safety boards offer varying guidance on masks at work.
It’s a patchwork that can be confusing. Multiple business operators say they want to stick to the rules and keep workers safe, but have found the regulations unclear.
The “ambiguous” messaging around mask-wearing in the workplace prompted the office manager at TEC Business Solutions to repeatedly call public health over the last several months to ensure they were following rules, Prencipe said.
“We wanted to follow the protocols and keep our employees safe,” he said. “They told us we were taking the right precautions.”
Still, Prencipe made the call to tighten the mask rules in his workplace following the December outbreak, a move that Ontario appears to have followed.
In response to the “alarming and exceptional circumstances,” the province said individuals are now required to wear a mask or face covering in the indoor areas of businesses at all times.
Ontario is also stepping up enforcement measures. Provincial workplace inspectors are expected to focus on areas of high transmission, including break rooms, and issue tickets those not wearing a mask indoors.
Indeed, Prencipe said the virus may have been spread in either the company’s lunchroom or bathroom, spaces that both plant and office workers access.
Yet other provinces continue to only require masks in workplaces where employees are interacting with the public, or if two meters of distance cannot be maintained between workers.
In Nova Scotia, for example, the provincial mask requirement applies to spaces the public has access to – not private spaces.
“We encourage business owners/employers to set their own policies for private spaces,” Health Department spokeswoman Marla MacInnis said in an email.