Essential workers with respiratory conditions fear for health while on the job

by | Apr 17, 2020 | Headlines, News

Beatriz Balderrama Baleeiro, News Reporter

Working from home may be the new normal during the COVID-19 crisis, but many essential workers are still expected to show up on the job.

That’s causing concern for some employees with pre-existing health conditions who fear they’re increasing their risk of contracting the virus by going to work.

“I have chronic asthma and use puffers quite often,” said Veronique Kireef, a third-year Child and Youth Care student at Humber College who works at a restaurant in downtown Toronto.

“Although my work has put a lot of precautions in place and there is limited contact with customers, it is scary [to still be working there],” she said.

Restaurants that offer take-out and delivery services, such as the one Kireef works at, have been deemed an essential service by the Ontario government during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kireef said since the outbreak, her shifts at the restaurant have been reduced to one a week.

But quitting her job to protect her health isn’t an option because it would make her ineligible for the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit, which is only available to those who do not leave their jobs voluntarily, she said.

Working during the pandemic has put a toll on her mental health, Kireef said.

She said she is concerned about potentially spreading coronavirus to her housemates if she contracts it while on the job.

Dr. Sumontra Chakrabarti, an infection disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners, said in an email interview that having a respiratory condition does put one at higher risk of severe COVID-19 complications, but it does not necessarily put them at higher risk of being infected.

“This is a very tough situation, no doubt, and one that is difficult to navigate. No one should feel unsafe in the workplace,” he said.

“For someone who has significant concerns about their health and their ability to work, a conversation with the employer is very important,” Chakrabarti said. “There are often modified duties that can be done to help reduce risk.”

He said there are measures workplaces could take to protect their employees, including installing Plexiglas shields, setting up contactless delivery and modifying duties.

Chakrabarti said there are also precautions workers should take.

“Good hand hygiene and avoiding touching the mouth or nose will go a long way to prevent infection,” he said.

Despite these safeguards, some essential workers like Kireef remain concerned for their well-being — especially because the alternative to working would mean a loss of income.

“I do not want to take time off work because I need the income. It’s a hard situation to be in but all I can do is take proper precautions,” Kireef said.