Don’t Stand So Close To Me….Returning to Work and Managing Physical Distancing

 In Employment Law

On the lighter side

The idea that sometimes people can get “too close” is not new.  Seinfield’s “close talker” episode made people both laugh, and cringe, as Elaine’s boyfriend launched himself across social boundaries, speaking to people mere inches from their faces.

Now we have COVID-19 and as employers are turning their minds to recalling employees to work, one of the questions they are grappling with is how to ensure that employees are not only respecting the normal rules around appropriate physical distancing but the new “six foot” boundary.

For those so inclined, there is some interesting new technology that is being developed to help with exactly that.  For example in Italy, a company has developed physical distancing bracelets that beep when someone is within 3 feet.  These bracelets come with a tracing function that tells users if they have come into contact with someone who later tests positive.

In the United States, a company has developed a product they call Proximity Trace, which is a device that workers can wear on their hard hats that emits an alarm if they come within six feet of another employee at a job site. As they get closer, the alarm gets louder.

I can only imagine the auditory chaos that this kind of technology might create as people line up to get into building elevators and back into offices or worse, in schools and daycares.

In Germany there have been stories about the restaurant owner who has made pool noodle hats for his customers and closer to home, songs are being played over the loud speaker reminding No Frills shoppers to keep a Cart Apart.

Your average small and medium sized employer, trying to recover from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 is unlikely to have the spare capital to invest in bracelets and alarms.

So how do employer’s deal with enforcing the rules around physical distancing?

  • Make it clear that people are expected to keep six feet apart.
  • Reinforce the message to keep your distance during (remote) meetings, email communications and signs, where appropriate.
  • Develop rules on the number of people who can be in one place (lunch room, copy room, elevator) at one time.
  • Let employees know that it is ok to speak up (respectfully) about physical distancing, as this is new to everyone and people may need to be reminded.
  • In the event that some employees are not complying with the rules around physical distancing, it may be necessary to take more formal steps such as giving written warnings. An employer faced with an employee who continues to refuse to comply with the employer’s rules on physical distancing (and other health and safety measures that may be put in place in order to ensure a healthy and safe work place) may need to consider termination of employment.

As I have been thinking about this issue, I have often found the chorus to Sting’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” running through my head, particularly after the special COVID-19 edition with Jimmy Fallon aired earlier in this COVID era.  Perhaps this song can be worked into a reminder?

If people have thought of other creative, but inexpensive, ways of helping to remind us all to ‘keep our distance’ in the workplace we would love to hear them.

This blog post was written by Colleen Hoey, a Partner in the Employment team.  She can be reached at 613-369-0366 or at Colleen.Hoey@mannlawyers.com.

 

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