Canada has a patchwork of different policies in place regarding the public disclosure of COVID-19 outbreaks in workplaces, and expert opinion seems as divided as the regulations on whether making outbreaks public helps or hinders the spread of the virus.
Earlier this month, the city of Toronto moved to publish the names of companies seeing multiple COVID-19 infections, even though the province of Ontario doesn’t disclose outbreaks.
“Across Canada, workplace reporting is not being done nearly enough,” said Joe Cressy, the chair of Toronto’s Board of Health and a councillor in Ontario’s capital.
In Quebec and Ontario, workplace outbreaks surpassed those in long-term care facilities for a time before the new year arrived.
Recent Ontario outbreaks at a 9-1-1 dispatch centre and a Canada Post distribution facility, plus outbreaks at industrial settings in Alberta and B.C., and others at food processing plants and warehouses late last year have renewed concerns about workplace spread.
CBC News looked at how provincial and territorial governments disclose COVID-19 workplace outbreaks across the country — and the pros and cons of making them public.
Who names companies and who doesn’t
In Newfoundland and Atlantic Canada, workplaces are only named publicly if health officials cannot identify and contact people who may be at risk of infection and should isolate and monitor themselves for symptoms or get tested.
This means workplaces that are not open to the public are rarely named, while grocery stores and transportation services, such as ferries and flights, for instance are common on Nova Scotia’s published list of exposure risks.
Newfoundland does publish a list of workplace outbreaks at industrial sites in Alberta and B.C., because so many of its residents travel for work to those provinces.
In Canada’s North, territorial governments will publish the locations where there was a risk of public exposure, which can include workplace names.
Manitoba’s policy mirrors the practice in Atlantic Canada, with businesses named only if health officials are not able to complete contact tracing.
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In a statement, Ontario’s Ministry of Health said disclosing the names of companies or workplaces “is within the purview of local public health units.”
Though Toronto just began publishing workplace outbreak names, Hamilton has been doing so since last spring.
Meanwhile, some disclosures come from companies themselves, or from workers or union officials publicizing the issue.
Naming brings accountability
While standard public health practice is to only name outbreak locations for communicable diseases when there’s a risk of exposure for the public, Cressy believes the best way to make government and companies accountable for protecting workers is to name every workplace outbreak, everywhere.
“COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting low income frontline workers,” he said. “In a pandemic, information is power. And information can also provoke change.”
Dr. Nitin Mohan, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Western University in London, Ont., thinks naming workplaces could lead to changes that would protect essential workers.
“Understanding how government is responding to a once-in-a-generation pandemic requires us to have the available data. So if we’re seeing workplace outbreaks, and we know that a government is not supportive of providing paid sick leave, essentially, folks are armed with more information for the next election cycle.”
For Mohan, naming workplaces would also “provide us with a lot of data about community spread.” However, he said the privacy of individual workers must be protected, which would mean some small companies couldn’t be identified.
Naming could backfire
Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist with Epi Research Inc. of Winnipeg, says naming businesses could backfire.
She says it could actually scare employees into not reporting feeling sick if they fear being blamed for bad publicity from an outbreak.
At the same time, she worries it could create a stigma around businesses that might have good safety practices, but still had an outbreak.
“My concern is always that we don’t make that mistake of equating shaming with accountability. It’s not the same thing.”
Carr supports public health transparency when it helps give people the power to make choices or take action.
Publicizing outbreaks at long-term care facilities and hospitals, she said, “has an associated action people need to understand,” like: “I can’t visit my loved one.”
She thinks workplaces should be named when COVID-19 could be spread in the community, but naming every single workplace with an outbreak doesn’t give the public useful information about whether they need to self-monitor or go for testing.
Keeping workers safe
In Alberta, where workplace outbreaks are published, a union spokesperson says the naming policy is mostly a public relations issue for employers.
“On the ground, on the shop floor, in the workplaces … it hasn’t meant a whole lot,” said Micheal Hughes of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 401.
“Certainly not enough to stop outbreaks from happening.”
Before Alberta started naming workplaces, it was workers and UFCW that exposed what became the largest COVID-19 workplace outbreak in Canada at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alberta.
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At least 950 workers, almost half the plant’s staff, tested positive for COVID-19 by early May 2020.
Recently, the RCMP launched an investigation into possible criminal negligence by the company in the death of Benito Quesada, a 51-year-old Cargill worker who died from COVID-19.
Hughes believes the best way to keep workers safe is to have “a worker-centred, robust kind of regulatory system” including clear and mandatory guidelines for workplaces and more inspections by labour officials.
In the fall, Ottawa began giving cash to food processors across the country to help them deal with COVID-19.
The $77.5-million emergency fund is meant to help the sector implement measures to fight the coronavirus, including acquiring more protective equipment for workers.
Epidemiologists say meat plants present ideal conditions for the COVID-19 virus to spread, because workers are in close contact, windows can’t be opened for fresh air and the temperature is cool.
Hughes said while naming businesses as workplace outbreaks continue may help “motivate a company to do things,” the focus of the UFCW is to continue the push for safety measures and benefits like paid sick leave.