WorkSafeBC is urging businesses to review and update their COVID-19 safety plans as the agency increases inspections in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions to help curtail the spread of the virus.
The safety authority has played a key role in reducing outbreaks in B.C. workplaces since the early days of the pandemic, requiring businesses to develop safety plans to adhere to industry-specific protocols and conducting inspections to ensure compliance.
As sweeping new pandemic restrictions were announced in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions on Saturday, it has doubled down on that mandate with “enhanced” inspections, said Al Johnson, WorkSafeBC’s head of prevention services.
“Now is not the time to relax,” he said Thursday. “In general, we’ve seen a good level of compliance, but people are starting to get fatigued. The message we want to get across is that we need to stay the course.”
To ensure employers are actually following through with their safety plans, inspectors will be doing a “deeper dive” during inspections to ensure three things: that plans are actually effective, that they are being followed to the letter, and that they are applied to all aspects of the workplace.
“What we’ve seen in some cases, is that a worker may be safe while they’re doing their job — like a worker at a grocery store who is behind Plexiglass — but when it’s lunch, they go into the break room and sit beside their coworkers,” said Johnson.
He offered another example to show the need for compliance across the entire workplace, pointing to a construction site where workers wore masks when they were in close proximity to each other, but piled into a minivan together to drive home at the end of the day.
Unannounced inspections, which will be conducted both at WorkSafe’s discretion and in response to specific complaints, will prioritize high-risk workplaces where it can be tough to maintain physical distance, said Johnson.
That means food processing facilities, as well as the warehousing and manufacturing sectors, may see an increase in inspections.
During the inspections, which vary in length depending on the size of the workplace, employers can expect an interview where they are asked to go over their safety plan before the inspector walks through the workplace to see how the plan is being applied. Inspectors may also talk to employees to ensure they are aware of the plan and ask them if it is working.
Worker engagement, in both the creation and implementation of the plan, is crucial, said Johnson.
As of Nov. 7, WorkSafeBC has conducted 18,000 workplace inspections related to COVID-19 safety protocols, in addition to fielding about 20,000 inquiries about the virus on its phone line. Regular safety inspections have also continued during the pandemic for a total of 51,738 inspection so far this year. By comparison, WorkSafeBC conducted about 44,000 inspections in 2019.
Complaints received about businesses that may not be complying with safety protocols are triaged to one of 325 WorkSafeBC officers for response.
Johnson said WorkSafeBC tries to work with employers to achieve compliance. In cases where a violation is noted and there is a need to motivate the employer to fix the problem, officers can issue an order.
Businesses are typically given seven to 12 days to comply, and if the issue is not resolved in that time, they may receive a second order. At that point, officers may write a citation — a $500 fine that escalates to $1,000 the second time — or, in cases of continued non-compliance, apply a penalty to the company based on a calculation that factors in risk and payroll.
Johnson said WorkSafeBC hasn’t issued any penalties due to COVID-19. Officers have issued 667 orders. Some of those have led to fines, but he did not know how many.
The most common issue identified in 18,000 inspections across the province has been difficulty with physical distancing.