ISSUE 2009-11: November 18, 2009

In This Issue

H1N1 in Schools – Not an Unsafe Work Environment


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Refusal of Unsafe Work Flow Chart



If you have questions about the issues raised in this newsletter, or any health, safety or wellness issue, please contact Mark Grabas at 604.730.4509 or markg@bcpsea.bc.ca

H1N1 in Schools — Not an Unsafe Work Environment

Within the last 20 days, WorkSafeBC has investigated four refusals for unsafe work in school districts. Each case involved pregnant teachers who refused to work, claiming that it was unsafe due to the potential to contract H1N1 while at work.

In all four cases WorkSafeBC determined that there was no undue hazard and it was safe for teachers to work.

In light of the recent WorkSafeBC investigations and determinations, our advice remains the same.  We will continue to follow the advice and guidance of WorkSafe, the Ministry of Health, the Provincial Health Officer and local Medical Health Officers.

BCPSEA Suggested Responses — Revisited

BCPSEA suggests that districts continue to follow the advice of the Ministry of Health and the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Perry Kendall.

Specifically, the Ministry of Health has stated:

  • There are no school-setting-specific recommendations for staff with medical conditions or pregnant women.
  • We do not recommend that staff or students stay home from school or work unless they are ill. It’s important to continue on our daily lives, but staff and students with medical conditions or pregnant women should continue to take precautions, such as frequent hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes.
  • Staff or students with medical conditions or who are pregnant should consult a medical professional immediately if they begin to exhibit any of the symptoms of influenza, as early treatment is important in reducing the risk of complications.

Further, Dr. Perry Kendall (Provincial Health Officer) advised in his teleconference to schools that pregnant women should speak with their doctor about obtaining prescriptions for Tamiflu in the event they come down with flu like symptoms.  They do not need to be excluded from school as H1N1 is in the community. There is no point in not working as they could just as easily pick up H1N1 in the supermarket, at the gas station or from a family member.

Refusal of Unsafe Work

A worker’s right to refuse unsafe work is captured in the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation 3.12:

A person must not carry out or cause to be carried out any work process or operate or cause to be operated any tool, appliance or equipment if that person has reasonable cause to believe that to do so would create an undue hazard to the health and safety of any person.

Taking guidance from the recent WorkSafeBC investigations and determinations, it is our position that a worker cannot reasonably refuse to work in a school that has a case or cases of H1N1 claiming unsafe working conditions or an undue hazard.

With specific reference to H1N1, where a school has an effective Exposure Control Plan (ECP), it is unlikely that an undue hazard would exist. In fact, compared with the community at large, a school with an ECP is likely safer. The WorkSafeBC position is that a broadly communicated and effective ECP based on risk assessment as required by the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation provides the strongest protection for workers. 

For an ECP to be considered effective:

  • The ECP must be written and available for review
  • The ECP must be distributed to all staff
  • The ECP must be communicated to all staff
  • Staff must be trained on the requirements and procedures of the ECP, and
  • The employer must ensure the ECP is functioning as intended.

An updated ECP template is available in our Health Safety and Wellness newsletter No. 2009-10.


Vaccination is recommended as the most important step you can take to protect yourself and others.  The adjuvanted and non-adjuvanted H1N1 vaccine is available in most areas to pregnant women.

Absenteeism Rates

Absenteeism rates in schools are used as a surveillance tool by the Medical Health Officers.  The Medical Health Officers use the absenteeism data to estimate the impact of an illness or infection on the community at large.  Absenteeism is neither a reflection nor an indication of the safety of a school or of the staff and students attending.

Community-Acquired Infectio

WorkSafeBC and the Ministry of Health have stated that the current H1N1 influenza is primarily a community-acquired infection and teaching staff are at no greater risk of contracting the infection than others in the community.

Consequently, based on the WorkSafeBC investigations of the refusals of unsafe work and the position stated by WorkSafeBC, it is our opinion that it will not be deemed to be unsafe for a pregnant teacher to go to work in the classroom where the potential to contract H1N1 exists.

Further, it is our opinion that in the absence of any underlying medical conditions, a pregnant teacher cannot have reasonable cause to believe that to carry out her work would create an undue hazard to her health and safety based solely on the presence or potential to contract H1N1.

WorkSafeBC has confirmed that although their position may not be popular, it will not change. They maintain that there is no greater risk of contracting H1N1 in schools or the workplace in general versus the general population. This continues to apply to pregnant women. 

BC Public School Employers' Association
400 – 1333 West Broadway, Vancouver BC V6H 4C1
Tel: 604.730.0739   Fax: 604.730.0787   
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