May 1, 2020
For workplaces that remain open, or those considering how to resume operations, the possibility of screening employee temperature is being explored with greater frequency. With major corporations around the world announcing screening programs to both increase worker safety and consumer confidence, many others are asking if they should follow such a process.
How to Test Temperature
Accurate body temperature measurements seek to measure a person’s core body temperature. The normal core body temperature range in an adult is 36.5 – 37 C, but not everyone’s “normal” is the same. As well, different methods of temperature testing, such as oral, axillar (armpit), or tympanic (inside the ear) can yield different results. Thus, having tests performed by medically trained staff is required for proper testing, and appropriate assessment of results. As well, employers should be aware that proper hygiene, and the provision (and proper use) of PPE is required if considering oral, axillar or tympanic temperature testing as this necessitates physical contact, and potentially puts the person doing the testing at risk. This can raise issues of cost, liability if proper measures are not followed, and the risk of employee refusal to participate.
For rapid and hygienic testing, contactless Infra-Red (IR) thermometers are often the method chosen by employers. However, experts state that IR devices are notoriously unreliable due to user error (holding the device too close or too far away), and that even when used correctly people who are infected can go 14 days or more without showing any symptoms. IR temperature results can also be influenced by environmental factors (ie: someone who walked to work in the sun compared to someone who drove to work in air conditioning).
Is Temperature Testing Necessary?
There are no orders requiring workplaces to implement temperature screening.
Because of the challenges in getting an accurate temperature measurement conveniently, the variations between individuals unrelated to disease, and because virus transmission can occur before a person shows physical symptoms, temperature screening is unlikely to create a meaningful barrier in many workplaces. However, locations where individuals are particularly vulnerable or are required to work in close contact with others could potentially benefit from a properly implemented screening program.
Having a Plan
Before implementing temperature screening, there should be a plan in place for what happens if an employee returns a high temperature. Will they be asked to be tested again to confirm the results? Will they be sent home? If they are sent home, how long until they are permitted to return to work? How will an employee be paid if they return a high temperature? Who will conduct the testing? What protective equipment and training will the person conducting screening receive?
There is no absolute right answer to these questions, but having a plan that addresses them will ensure a smooth process.
Privacy of Temperature Results
If your company decides to implement temperature screening, a major issue to consider is privacy. Provincially regulated employers in Alberta are subject to the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA), while federally regulated employers must adhere to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).
Employers are required to obtain employee consent prior to temperature testing and collection of information. A system should be in place to ensure normal range results are safely discarded immediately, with high temperature results being erased once the employee has taken the steps required under the plan such as departing the premises for the set number of days.
Unless an employee consents to the release of high temperature results, the employee should not be identified with respect to the reason for their absence except to their direct supervisor, or unless required under an order pursuant to the Alberta Public Health Act.
If testing is being implemented, another consideration is the Alberta Human Rights Act. Screening should not be limited to specific groups based on age, race, or any other protected grounds. However, if there are different groups of employees who work independently, while others are required to work in groups or close together, it may be reasonable to focus screening efforts on individuals at the greatest risk of transmission.
Similarly, anyone returning a high temperature should be managed in the same way to avoid claims of discrimination.
Communicating Implementation of Screening Process
Providing advance notice to employees that temperature screening is being implemented will assist in avoiding any surprises and will allow employees to ask questions in advance. Providing details of the plan, including specific information about how the testing will be operated and the safety precautions being taken, will avoid potential disputes arising from miscommunication. You may also want to encourage people to test their own temperature each day before coming to work, thus potentially avoiding unnecessary contact with co-workers if they detect a high temperature.
Managing Employee Refusal
Your screening plan should anticipate how employees will be managed if they refuse to participate. The first step should be to communicate with the employee to determine the reason for their refusal.
COVID-19 and Testing Employee Temperatures
Deciding whether to test employee temperatures depends on many factors. If implemented, your managers and supervisors should be trained to ensure they understand the privacy and human rights issues created by implementing such a program. Temperature testing can add a level of trust to your workplace, but must be done properly to avoid risks associated with close contact and inaccurate assessment. Businesses should continue to enforce mandatory stay at home policies for employees showing any symptoms of illness, even if their temperature is in the normal range. Temperature screening should not replace proper handwashing, physical distancing, or surfaces being cleaned regularly, as those remain the primary methods of preventing the spread of disease.
If you have questions about implementing temperature screening in your business, please contact any of Carbert Waite’s Employment Lawyers.