Viral respiratory illnesses and the Occupational Health and Safety Act
Learn about employers’ responsibilities and how you can protect your workers from viral respiratory illnesses, including the flu (influenza) and COVID-19. Workers can get information about health and safety protections at the workplace.
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This resource does not replace the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and its regulations and should not be used as or considered legal advice. Health and safety inspectors apply and enforce these laws based on the facts they find in the workplace.
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), employers have the duty to keep workers and workplaces safe and free of hazards. This includes protecting workers from the hazards of viral respiratory illnesses, including seasonal respiratory viruses and COVID‑19. Learn more about viral respiratory illnesses, such as the flu (influenza) and COVID‑19.
Workers have the right to refuse unsafe work. For more information see Part V: Right to refuse or to stop work where health and safety in danger.
The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development investigates all complaints related to workplace health and safety under the OHSA. The Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development consults with the Ministry of Health, Public Health Ontario and other ministries and agencies to provide support, advice and enforcement, as needed.
Failure of an employer to comply with the OHSA and its regulations could result in enforcement action by the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development.
Guidance for employers
Under the OHSA, employers and supervisors must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of workers. This includes protecting workers from hazards posed by infectious diseases. The OHSA sets out the minimum standard related to health and safety in the workplace.
The risk of exposure to viral respiratory illnesses, such as COVID‑19, in the workplace may increase during the fall and winter months or other periods of increased viral activity. Employers should put controls in place to address the hazard of exposure to viral respiratory illnesses such as COVID‑19.
Employers can refer to the COVID‑19 disease specific directions for public health advice that cases and contacts are expected to follow. Workplaces should review this information and future revisions to stay up to date on public health messaging to protect workers.
Requirements for all workplaces under the Occupational Health and Safety Act
OHSA requirements for all employers include:
- ensuring workers know about hazards by providing information, instruction and supervision on how to work safely
- ensuring supervisors know what is required to protect workers’ health and safety on the job
- creating an occupational health and safety policy and a program to implement the policy
- ensuring workplace parties follow the law and the workplace’s health and safety policies and procedures
- ensuring workers wear the right protective equipment and are trained on how to use it
- taking all precautions reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers from being hurt or getting a work-related illness
Read the guide to the Occupational Health and Safety Act to understand all of your occupational health and safety rights and responsibilities.
Contact one of the health and safety partners for help with understanding the OHSA.
Assess your workplace
Employers should assess the workplace, in consultation with the joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative, to determine what they need to do to protect the health and safety of workers.
This supports the workplace internal responsibility system (IRS), which ensures everyone in the workplace has a role to play in keeping workplaces safe and healthy.
Under the OHSA, employers must provide their workers with:
Employers should determine what kind of information is appropriate with respect to protecting workers from exposure to viral respiratory illnesses at work, including COVID‑19. This should include, at a minimum information about:
- viral respiratory illness in general
- the importance of staying home if unwell
- basics of infection control, such as hand hygiene and cough and sneeze etiquette
- signs and symptoms typical of viral respiratory illnesses, such as COVID‑19
- the most recent advice from public health authorities
Based on an assessment, and in consultation with the joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative, the employer may choose to put additional precautions into place for protecting workers from exposure to viral respiratory illnesses.
What to do about potential COVID‑19 illness or exposure at work
If a worker shows symptoms of a respiratory illness, they should be encouraged to remain at home, follow advice about what to do if they’ve been exposed to COVID‑19 and contact either:
As with all workplace hazards, employers are responsible for taking every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers’ health and safety.
This may include providing information to workers on current public health advice including recommendations on:
- mask wearing
- monitoring for symptoms of viral respiratory infection, such as COVID‑19
Workplaces should consider additional measures to modify workplace practices to prevent further spread of viral respiratory infections including COVID‑19.
If an employer is advised that a worker has an occupational illness due to an exposure at the workplace or that a claim has been filed with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), the employer must give notice in writing within four days to:
- a Director of the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development (as defined under the OHSA)
- the workplace’s joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative
- the worker’s trade union (if applicable)
Additionally, the employer must report any occupationally acquired illnesses to the WSIB within three days of receiving notification of the illness.
Guidance for workers
As with all workplace hazards, employers are responsible for taking every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers’ health and safety. This includes protecting them from exposure to infectious diseases, such as COVID‑19 and other viral respiratory illness at work. Learn more about viral respiratory illnesses such as the flu and COVID‑19.
Use of personal protective equipment
The Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations set out requirements for the use of various types of personal protective equipment where workers are exposed to hazards. Different regulations apply to different types of workplaces. Workplace parties should consult the regulations relevant to their workplace to ensure they are in compliance.
A worker must use or wear the personal protective equipment that an employer requires. The employer must also comply with any relevant regulatory requirements for that personal protective equipment.
Concerns about personal protective equipment
If you are aware of workplace health and safety concerns (for example, absence or defects) about personal protective equipment (such as masks) which may endanger you or other workers, you must report your concerns to your employer or supervisor. Questions about the voluntary use of such equipment should also be directed to your employer or supervisor.
You may also raise the issues or concerns with your:
- joint health and safety committee
- health and safety representative in your workplace (if one exists)
What to do if someone at work has respiratory symptoms
If a worker shows symptoms of a viral respiratory illness, like a cough or difficulty breathing, they should stay home and follow current public health advice.
If a worker has concerns that a co-worker has respiratory symptoms, the worker should raise concerns with the employer or supervisor.
Employers should promote infection prevention and control measures in the workplace, such as:
- hand hygiene
- cough and sneeze etiquette
- provide reminders to workers to follow public health advice, for example, staying home when sick and mask wearing
Working with someone who might haveor other respiratory illnesses
Workers in Ontario, including those working with patients or clients known or suspected to have COVID‑19 or other respiratory illnesses, have the right to:
- know about hazards in their workplace and to be trained on how to protect themselves from harm
- help identify and resolve workplace health and safety concerns
- refuse unsafe work
Employers have duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, including:
- ensuring that the equipment, materials and protective devices as prescribed are provided and maintained in good condition
- providing information, instruction and supervision to a worker to protect the health or safety of the worker
- taking every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of the worker
Your right to refuse work
The Occupational Health and Safety Act provides a worker with the right to refuse work that they believe is unsafe.
If you refuse work that you believe is unsafe, you must promptly report the circumstances to your employer or supervisor.
Certain occupations have a limited right to refuse work if the danger in question is a normal part of the job or if the refusal would endanger the life, health or safety of another person.
This includes persons employed in certain health care and residential workplaces, first responders and correctional services workers.
These workers cannot refuse work when either:
- the dangerous circumstance is inherent in their work or is a normal condition of their employment
- their refusal to work would directly endanger the life, health or safety of another person
Even where there is a limited right to refuse work, the employer and supervisor still have a duty to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of all workers.
Teachers do not have the right to refuse work where the circumstances are such that the life, health or safety of a pupil is in imminent jeopardy. Learn more about teacher work refusals.
It is important that the following workplace parties are aware of the procedure that must be followed for a work refusal:
- members of the joint health and safety committee (JHSC)
- multi-site JHSCs (MJHSCs)
- health and safety representatives
Making a complaint or resolving a dispute
We encourage you to try to resolve your dispute internally.
If concerns remain, a worker can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development’s Health and Safety Contact Centre by calling toll-free at
An inspector may visit the workplace to determine if the employer is complying with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations.