The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak at the University of Guelph raises questions about the role of post-secondary institutions that have been ignoring the science on transmission and neglecting workplace safety, according to the CUPE.

Universities in Ontario have taken the position that COVID spreads only through droplets or contact, even as the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) updated its guidelines in November in accordance with the scientific consensus on aerosol transmission of COVID-19.

“Broadly speaking, universities in Ontario are not acknowledging that COVID-19 spreads through aerosol transmission. That has a major impact on the health and safety protocols put into place, compromising workplace safety and risking the campus community at large,” said David Simao, Chair of CUPE’s Ontario Universities Workers Coordinating Committee (OUWCC).

According to CUPE, universities are failing to meet their obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which requires them to take all reasonable precautions to protect their staff.

That includes undertaking risk assessments based on the latest evidence, ensuring proper ventilation for buildings, training workers who risk exposure to COVID and providing them adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

“If a graduate student is working on campus, they should be informed about potential risks and the precautionary steps they must take. Or in the case of custodial staff who are expected to clean buildings where students are quarantined or self-isolating, they need the right PPE and training on how to work around infected people,” Simao said.

Some universities have not been specifying the location of outbreaks, thereby withholding vital information from campus community members who may have been exposed to COVID-19. Simao said that employers should work with unions through Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC), which comprise representatives from the administration and unions.

CUPE has been calling on the Ford government to implement provincial health and safety standards for Ontario’s publicly-owned post-secondary institutions.

In the absence of clear guidance from the province, Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario, said Ontario’s universities must put the health and safety of staff and students at the forefront of their COVID-19 plans.

“Safe working conditions for university workers are safe learning conditions for students. The most effective path to safely manage campuses is for administrations to meaningfully engage with their workers through the mechanisms that have always been available to promote health and safety—especially JHSCs,” he said.