By Kristina Vassilieva, HR Writer, Peninsula Canada

It is unclear how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, and with the potential for more waves of the virus in the future, seasonal industries may also be affected. Employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their workers, and this includes protecting them from infectious diseases. It is therefore the responsibility of business owners and employers to make changes to their workplaces’ procedures and practices in order to ensure the health and safety of their workers. 

There is little data available to suggest that COVID-19 cases will rise during winter, however, other respiratory viruses such as influenza experience an increase in cases during colder months of the year. This correlates with the increased amount of time people spend in indoor public places when it is cold outside. Increased social interactions in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation further peoples’ chances of contracting viruses. In preparation, employers can remind employees to practice social distancing, spend more time outdoors, and avoid enclosed public spaces when possible. 

Risk assessments 

With seasonal work, employers must consider the unique working circumstances of their employees and respond by eliminating or reducing any hazards they may find. Prior to starting the season, employers must conduct a risk assessment to determine what potential dangers employees are exposed to when working. In the context of COVID-19, this means assessing when workers are likely to interact with coworkers or the public and how these interactions can be reduced or prevented entirely to minimize their exposure to others.

Controlling risks in the workplace

If risks associated with performing a certain task at work cannot be eliminated, it may be necessary to remove the task altogether or to heighten safety measures when it is being carried out. For example, if an employee has to enter an enclosed space such as an office, indoor parking garage, storage space or a break room, the employer must follow government guidelines in ensuring that all necessary COVID-19 health and safety measures are in place. Measures may include distancing markers, one-way flow in narrow spaces, capacity limits, and plexiglass barriers where distancing is not possible. In-person interactions within the workplace and at other sites the employee may be required to visit should be kept as brief as possible, while practicing distancing and wearing personal protective equipment. 

Preparing your workplace also means providing enough supplies. Employees should have easy access to hygiene products like hand sanitizers, tissues, and soap when working. Additionally, the workplace should be cleaned and disinfected frequently, especially commonly touched surfaces such as door handles and countertops.

Health and safety while working

Using any shared equipment should be avoided. If equipment cannot be easily disinfected, it should not be used at all. Shared work vehicles should also have a capacity of one employee and be disinfected in between employees’ uses. When isolation is not possible, opening windows and ensuring good ventilation can help reduce changes of infection. 

HR considerations

There are also HR steps employers can take to help protect their workers during the pandemic. Providing education on COVID-19 and how to work safely will be important in ensuring everyone is playing their part in preventing the spread of the virus to the workplace. Employees should receive training on any new workplace procedures, as well as how to correctly use personal protective equipment. 

Additionally, employers must inform workers of what will happen if an employee contracts COVID-19, if an employee is exposed to someone with COVID-19, and how contact tracing will be carried out. Keeping a log of all visitors and workers’ interactions with the public can help management determine the source of infection if a worker tests positive and to inform other workers if they’ve been exposed to someone carrying the virus. Employees should be asked to self-monitor for symptoms and avoid coming in for work if they are experiencing any. To further reduce interactions and capacity, employers can implement staggered shifts, flexible work hours, and break times to help ensure spaces are shared as little as possible.

Supporting employees’ well-being

As the days get colder and darker and pandemic fatigue sets in, some employees may start experiencing poor mental health. This can be due to fears of contracting COVID-19 at work or general anxieties related to the pandemic. Employers can support workers by providing additional leave options in excess of the statutory minimum, as well as paid leave for employees who get sick. The latter will ensure that sick workers actually stay home as some may not be able to take unpaid time off work and might risk coming in anyway. 

Mental health resources, such as employee assistance programs, can also be helpful to workers. Employers should remind employees of all available resources and how they can help them. Initiating the conversation on mental health in the workplace can help employees feel more comfortable in opening up about their concerns. To support workers, employers should inform them of who to speak with if they need help, what accommodations can be made to help them, and what further resources they can access. 

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About the author

Kristina Vassilieva is a writer at Peninsula, an HR and health and safety consultancy serving small- and medium-sized businesses across Canada. In her writing she covers popular HR and workplace health and safety topics, as well as news, employment laws and legislative changes that affect Canadian businesses. Her work has been published in numerous newspapers, magazines, as well as trade and HR publications.