COVID-19 has severely hit businesses over the past months, particularly in the service industry where workers face and talk to customers on a regular basis. Following the provincial lockdown, Ontario’s government has put together a stage-by-stage plan for the province to reopen businesses and get people back to their normal lives.

With the province now in Stage 3, which involves the reopening of low-contact recreational facilities and indoor restaurants, many young workers are serving customers again.

These frontline workers may have concerns or feel unsafe about going back to work due to the pandemic. Everyone should be aware that, under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, workers can refuse to do anything that causes them to worry about their health and safety. The only exceptions are people who are responsible for the public’s safety and protection, such as first responders and correctional service workers.

At all times, employers are required to maintain a safe environment and make sure that everyone in the workplace has an acceptable understanding of safety equipment and procedures. With COVID-19, the province is recommending enhanced safety measures, such as scheduling shifts and breaks to avoid large congregations, enforcing physical distancing in the workplace, and holding meetings outdoors.

Employers are responsible for their employees and workplaces, but health and safety depend on all parties’ attention. Since it is impossible for all young workers to work from home, the provincial government lists ways on its website for workers to protect themselves.

Some of these recommendations include avoiding high-touch areas and washing their clothes as soon as they get home. Adherence to basic health measures like frequent hand-washing and avoidance of face-touching is also important.

If workers are worried about COVID-19 exposure or show symptoms of the illness, they should stay home and contact their health care provider. They should also contact Telehealth Ontario along with their local public health unit.

While any safety issues should be communicated to workplace supervisors and workplace safety representatives first, persistent issues can be brought to the attention of the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. Complaints can be filed online, and, for very pressing issues, the Ministry’s Health and Safety Contact Centre can be reached by phone anytime.

“It’s really important that employers take steps necessary to integrate these public health principles into their work environment to ensure safety for their employees and also for their customers,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an associate professor at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, said in an interview with The Varsity.  “We’re living in a pre-vaccine era, and there is no place that is without risk, so the goal is to reduce the risk as much as possible.”

Bogoch said that many workplaces are doing just that by adhering to safety precautions and that it is unrealistic to expect anywhere to be at zero risk. When asked what advice he can offer to young workers, Bogoch emphasized that they need to make smart decisions. He said, “I think [young workers] have to take a very critical look at their work environment and determine if the employer is doing things appropriately to ensure their safety.”