22 February 2022
2021 in Labour Law (Part 2 of 3): Are Quebec Employers Responsible for Overseeing the Safety of Their Employees’ Homes?
Entering the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant subset of the province’s workforce remains relegated to remote working. Under the circumstances — for which there is no clear end in sight — to what degree are employers obligated (or even capable) of ensuring oversight of the safety of their employees’ remote working conditions? Are employers responsible in the event of a workplace injury?
This question was partially addressed in a December 2021 judgment rendered by the Administrative Labour Tribunal’s Health and Security Division . The judgment received substantial media coverage in Quebec and throughout Canada  and sets a precedent with ripples affecting employers throughout the province of Quebec.
The facts in Air Canada -and- Alexandria Gentile-Patti, 2021 QCTAT 5829 are as follows:
- In September 2020, a call centre employee, working as a customer support agent for Canada’s flag carrier airline, was injured due to a fall that occurred while descending a staircase in her home;
- The accident happened in the middle of the workday, while the individual was physically moving from her home office, situated on an upper level of the residence, for a lunch break in her kitchen, on the main floor;
- The individual, having sustained injuries due to the fall, followed protocol in advising her superior and filing a report;
- The employee then submitted a Worker’s Claim for an indemnity via the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST);
- The CNESST concluded in the spring of 2021 that the employee had in fact sustained an employment injury and was admissible for compensation covering the period during which she was unable to work (i.e.: approximately four months following the accident) and the required medical assistance;
- The decisions of the CNESST qualifying the accident as an employment injury were contested by the employer, and a hearing was held in October 2021 on this subject.
The employer, Air Canada, did not contest the facts surrounding the incident, nor did it dispute the seriousness of the injury or the leave required by the employee. However, the employer took the position that the incident did not qualify as an “employment injury”:
 Air Canada soutient que cette chute dans l’escalier n’est pas survenue à l’occasion du travail, puisque madame Gentile-Patti n’était plus dans sa sphère professionnelle, mais plutôt dans sa sphère personnelle, car la chute survient au moment où elle se dirige pour se restaurer. Air Canada prétend qu’il n’y a pas de connexité entre cette activité et le travail. Enfin, Air Canada ajoute que lorsqu’un travailleur est dans le confort de son foyer, il y a une présomption de vie privée faisant en sorte qu’il n’y a pas de contrôle effectif de la part de l’employeur.
Notwithstanding the employer’s position, administrative judge Philippe Bouvier concluded that the September 2020 incident did qualify as an employment injury, and that the employee was entitled to compensation accordingly.
In Quebec, the regime for workplace injuries is of public order governed by the Act Respecting Industrial Accidents and Occupational Diseases , with the following definitions:
“employment injury” means an injury or a disease arising out of or in the course of an industrial accident, or an occupational disease, including a recurrence, relapse or aggravation;
“industrial accident” means a sudden and unforeseen event, attributable to any cause, which happens to a person, arising out of or in the course of his work and resulting in an employment injury to him. 
Employers contribute to CNESST insurance and premiums are indexed annually. As with any conventional insurance, when an insured’s claim record increases, so do the premiums. In other words, when the CNESST deems an incident to be an “employment injury”, it becomes more costly for the employer to insure its workforce for workplace injuries. Notwithstanding the simplicity of the case and the presumed good faith of the employee, conceivably, the employer had every interest in contesting the conclusion that the accident was an employment injury.
Employers can go to great lengths to protect their employees within the conventional office space. In fact, an entire industry of consultants is dedicated to ensuring workplaces satisfy CNESST safety standards, consulting on everything from sufficient illumination to ergonomic furniture. In addition, places of work are subject to punctual inspection by the CNESST, such as to ensure employees are protected, with inspectors often granting corrective recommendations to the employer, as well as, depending on the context, grace periods for implementation and follow-up visits.
The Air Canada decision understandably puts employers in an onerous situation: notwithstanding the best intentions and care for the health and safety of its employees, how can an employer oversee a decentralised workforce with individuals performing their jobs from their homes? Are employers now expected to control the uncontrollable, and will they pay the price when accidents do occur, in circumstances over which they have neither knowledge nor the ability to impact causality?
For example, a home environment with a dimly lit staircase, an uneven or cluttered floor, or, a wet surface, can create conditions for injuries similar to those sustained by the employee in the Air Canada decision. Employers are right to be concerned about exposure for future claims.
An employer can control a finite space by implementing and curating conditions that adhere to health and safety standards, but Air Canada is a publicly traded corporation with over 30,000 employees. Even if — for arguments sake — only 10%  of said employees operate in a remote work scenario, that would entail the employer having to control the safety parameters for 3,000 different workspaces. This is clearly unfeasible for most employers, let alone a large publicly-traded corporation.
In order to decide whether the accident in question qualified as an employment injury, a myriad of jurisprudence exists to guide the courts, with various overlapping criteria:
 En mode télétravail, la résidence privée devient, certes, le lieu de travail, notamment l’environnement circonscrit où le travailleur exerce ses fonctions. La Loi sur les accidents du travail et les maladies professionnelles, la Loi, ne prévoit pas de cadre d’analyse distinct de l’événement imprévu et soudain, que celui-ci se produise à l’intérieur de la résidence privée du travail ou dans l’établissement de l’employeur ou encore ailleurs, que ce soit dans un stationnement ou ailleurs. Ainsi, la clé de voûte pour déterminer si un événement imprévu et soudain survient à l’occasion du travail demeure le cadre d’analyse développé par la jurisprudence, reposant sur les critères suivants :
le lieu de l’événement;
le moment de l’événement;
la rémunération de l’activité exercée par le travailleur au moment de l’accident;
l’existence et le degré d’autorité de l’employeur ou le lien de subordination du travailleur;
la finalité de l’activité exercée au moment de l’événement, qu’elle soit incidente, accessoire ou facultative aux conditions de travail;
le caractère de connexité ou d’utilité relative de l’activité du travailleur en regard de l’accomplissement du travail.
Examined as a whole, while notable in the context of a workforce increasingly operating from home, the decision seems to adhere to established law. For example, the tribunal focused on the fact that the injury was sustained while the employee was moving to the kitchen for a duly authorised lunch break. Caselaw already considers the need for regular nourishment  as being an integral part of the performance of work. Therefore, we can speculate that the same type of injury while an employee was, for example, shovelling snow on a driveway or doing laundry during a break or lunch pause would not necessarily have given way to the same conclusions by the tribunal.
In reality, and despite the media attention, this decision seems in line with prior decisions of this nature. The anomaly is the sheer number of individuals currently working outside of the traditional office setting.
Furthermore, the tribunal was cautious to indicate that the decision pertains to an employee’s right to an indemnity in the context of performing work, not the liability of the employer for unlawful or irregular working conditions:
 Le Tribunal rappelle qu’il s’agit d’un dossier d’indemnisation en vertu de la Loi et non d’un dossier visant à déterminer les obligations de l’employeur en matière de santé et sécurité au travail en vertu de la Loi sur la santé et sécurité du travail. De plus, plusieurs situations ont été reconnues comme un événement imprévu et soudain survenu à l’occasion du travail alors que l’employeur ne pouvait assurer une gestion du lieu où s’est passé l’incident, notamment comme une chambre d’hôtel, une salle de congrès ou encore un stationnement dont l’entretien et la gestion sont confiés à un tiers.
Best Practices for Employers
The December 2020 Air Canada decision is likely to be contested. Employers may need to await the conclusions of an appellate court before obtaining clearer directions and sufficient finality as to the state of the law on this subject. In the interim, employers can still mitigate risks in a continued work from home context.
For example, employers can send periodic reminders to employees (or hold virtual seminars) regarding the importance of a secure workspace (including ensuring optimal lighting, temperature settings and seating arrangements). Employers should encourage employees to regularly take breaks and make full use of available vacation time. Finally, for employers that do offer workers a private health insurance plan, there has never been a more appropriate time to remind employees of the availability of those benefits. It may not be possible for employers to control all aspects of the workspace for employees working remotely. However, proactive communication can help reduce the likelihood or avoid the occurrence of employment injuries altogether.
 RLRQ, c. A-3.001.
 Id. art. 2.
 Unverified figure, for illustrative purposes only.
 Id. note 1, par. 19.