Head to head: Should employers be responsible for personal protective equipment?

While occupational health and safety legislation is clear, the definition of PPE has evolved since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Hancock, National president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees

The coronavirus pandemic has made the acronym PPE — or personal protective equipment — a house-hold buzzword.

At the onset of the pandemic, shortages of PPE in frontline response jobs were rampant. This left many health-care workers scrambling to get the proper respiratory protection, face shields, gloves and other equipment required to do their jobs safely — often without the support of their employers.

Read: Unions across job sectors crying out for increased safety measures

Ultimately, employers control the workplace, including the equipment and materials used and the procedures for how work is done. Occupational health and safety legislation across Canada makes it clear that employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace for their employees.

In normal times, workplace hazards can be anything from loud noises to repetitive motions. Employers need to mitigate the risks involved in any job. If they can’t do so through administrative or engineering controls, they must provide PPE to keep workers safe on the job — it’s as simple as that. If they don’t, then workers are legally entitled to invoke their right to refuse unsafe work.

The pandemic has significantly increased the need for employers to provide PPE to protect workers against common routes of transmission. By law, employers are responsible for the selection, provision and fitting of PPE, as well as training workers on how to properly use, maintain and store it. It’s also important to note that cloth face coverings aren’t technically PPE; they help prevent the wearer from spreading the virus, but provide only limited respiratory protection.

Let’s be abundantly clear: not only should employers provide PPE, it’s their legal duty to do so.

Milena Stanoeva, Manager of public affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business

Small business owners care deeply about the health and safety of their staff and customers. Most have already invested in workplace PPE and other protective measures, such as barriers at cash registers, increased surface sanitization or the provision of disposable gloves at the door.

Read: Considerations around employee safety, privacy, leave during the coronavirus crisis

The costs of implementing these safety measures are necessary for businesses to stay open, encourage employees to come back to work and assure customers it’s safe to enter their business.

However, with only 30 per cent of businesses back to their usual revenues as of the end of September and many taking on new debt during the pandemic, these costs weigh heavily on small employers. While most are doing everything they can to keep staff and customers safe, requiring them to pay for all of the workplace adaptations can be difficult at this uncertain time.

The CFIB has urged governments to provide financial support to help cover some of the new pandemic-related expenses, including PPE costs. Some provinces are already doing so: in British Columbia, farms and food processors can receive funding for PPE and Prince Edward Island created the Workspace Adaption Assistance Fund, which provides up to $2,000 for physical changes to the workplace and PPE purchases.

Read: Benefits plan members nervous about in-person health care, finds survey

Provincial governments can also help small businesses in the health sector (i.e., dentists, massage therapists, optometrists) by allowing them to purchase PPE through provincial supply chains.

It’s likely that PPE and general safety measures will remain a necessity for some time to come. Employers want to do their part to protect employees and their customers. Helping small businesses cover this significant new cost should be part of public health policy so they can remain open and help bolster Canada’s economic recovery.