Workplace inspectors fanned out across Peel Region last week, targeting warehouses in the hard-hit manufacturing, logistics and distribution sectors. But even as the province was stepping up its own enforcement, some experts and advocates were wondering why the region itself wasn’t doing more to publicize where exactly COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace were occurring.
Earlier this month, the City of Toronto began publicly listing, by name, specific businesses that had been hit by a COVID outbreak. But for now, Peel, which has seen some of the worst workplace outbreaks in the province, isn’t following suit.
The decision doesn’t sit well with Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer with the Warehouse Workers Centre, an advocacy group in the region. “Of course … disclosing the names would be helpful,” she said. “We have been advocating for that since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Kaur, and some epidemiologists and public health experts, believe that publicly naming businesses helps keep workers safe. They argue that the risk of public exposure encourages employers to do everything they can to avoid outbreaks and that public scrutiny can help push bad actors to change.
That scrutiny is especially important in Peel, some believe — it’s where factory workers deemed essential by the province have been working non-stop, out of the public eye, for the entire pandemic.
“The more we keep secret how outbreaks happen, the less we know about how outbreaks happen,” said Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “It limits our ability to manage COVID at all. So I think this transparency does more than just transmission control, it elevates our understanding. And that allows us to actually do more that’s preventative.”
But not everyone sees it like that. Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s medical officer of health, argues that naming specific businesses can actually hurt public health efforts. “I think what we’re seeing is, to some extent, a clash between public health practice and journalistic tradition,” he said.
Peel already releases outbreak data by sector and will name a specific business if there’s a legitimate risk to the public, Loh said. But naming every business with an outbreak isn’t just unnecessary, Loh believes, it can be actively harmful. “Our policy has been shown to foster co-operation with employers which allows our investigators to get in more quickly to stop spread, to act sooner, to save lives,” he said.
“Naming workplaces after an outbreak has happened also doesn’t necessarily do anything to protect those workers and may even impede it. We have actually seen how certain workplaces will not co-operate with us or will actually even legally let go of their workers just so that they’re not associated with the workplace.”
Loh isn’t alone, either. “I’m totally with Lawrence on this,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto. Transparency is key, Bogoch believes — he wants to see granular data made public on outbreaks by sector, region and even neighbourhood — but he thinks naming individual businesses is in most cases a step too far.
“This is a very contagious infection. You can do everything right and still have outbreaks,” he said. “And there really is the risk of negative stigmatization toward a particular business that’s unfair, and it can do lasting harm.”
Part of the issue here, Furness believes, is that privacy and discretion are baked into the culture of public health, for good reason. “If you look like you’re the heavy, you make people hide from you,” he said. But a pandemic is not a normal public health crisis, it’s a disaster, Furness believes — and sometimes, in a disaster, you need different tools.
“The fact of the matter is that there’s a chicken and an egg thing here. Employers are already being irresponsible in many cases. And that’s why we’re getting workplace outbreaks,” he said. “So you don’t want to turn employers into bad actors by shining the public light on them. But when employers are bad actors already, that’s no longer a risk.”
For Furness, the perfect example is a recent outbreak at a CIBC call centre in Toronto. The City of Toronto revealed that outbreak as part of its new, routine disclosure program. That let experts and critics, like Furness, publicly question why CIBC was running an in-person call centre during the pandemic in the first place.
“I think CIBC should actually be wearing that publicly and having to explain that publicly,” Furness said. “They ought to suffer brand damage for that. People ought to be pointing at them and saying, what the heck? What are you doing? You’re putting us all at risk. Why are you doing this?”
As for the argument that naming names will drive business outbreaks underground, that hasn’t yet happened in Toronto, according to public health officials. The Toronto workplace disclosure program is still in its infancy, but in general, most workplaces have been “very co-operative” with the new initiative, Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health, said in a statement. Some have reached out with questions, but overall, the working relationship hasn’t changed “in any significant manner,” she said.
City Councillor Joe Cressy, meanwhile, said he’s actually hearing less from businesses now that all outbreaks are being reported. “The only time I’ve received phone calls from businesses, as the chair of the Board of Health, was when was when we only reported subjectively on workplaces that we deemed to have a high public health risk, because workplaces demanded to know why them and not another one,” he said.
Still, for now, Toronto remains an outlier in Ontario. Most provincial health units, like Peel, don’t name individual businesses with outbreaks. And if that does change in Peel, it may well be because of provincial policy, not local.
“We continue in discussions with our partners at Toronto Public Health and understand that a fulsome evaluation of their new approach will come in due time,” Loh said in an email. He added that has written to Ontario’s chief medical officer of health and the provincial public health measures table asking them for updated guidance on naming businesses. But for now, he stands by Peel’s policy.
“Our focus is on how do we get in quickly and protect workers and keep them safe,” he said.
As for the provincial inspection blitz in Peel, Kaur for one isn’t sure how effective it will be. “Talking to most of the workers, they don’t really think that government at this stage is doing enough to protect them,” she said. “I honestly haven’t heard directly from any worker where they had witnessed an inspection happening.”
Full results from the blitz won’t be available until after the project ends next week, according to the ministry. But between Feb. 10 and 15, inspectors visited 59 warehouses in Peel and issued 10 tickets and one order, according to preliminary data. The most common violations inspectors observed were inadequate or no screening, lack of safety plans, and violations of masking or physical distancing rules. Overall, less than two-thirds of the factories the ministry visited were in full compliance with the health and safety rules.