Social Distancing

By Jeffrey Cusack
Last updated: March 17, 2021

What Does Social Distancing Mean?

Social distancing is an infection control method that involves the individuals deliberately maintaining a significant physical space between themselves and others.

The purpose of this physical space is to limit the likelihood that an infected individual will successfully transmit a pathogen from themselves to others by increasing the distance the pathogen would need to travel in order to infect someone.

The term can also be used more broadly to refer to a reduction in the frequency and duration of any interactions that do occur between two people. Additionally, the term can include reductions in the total number of people that an individual interacts with over a given time period. In occupational settings, this may involve making sure that shifts are assigned on a group basis, rather than an individual basis, so that the same individuals are always working together, thereby limiting the spread of any potential infection.

Safeopedia Explains Social Distancing

Social distancing is used in situations where the presence of a pathogen poses a significant risk to health and safety. In particular, the use of social distancing implies that there is a significant likelihood that an infected individual exists (knowingly or unknowingly) within a given society, and that the consequences of the infection being transmitted from that individual to others poses a significant risk of severe harm to the wider population.

The use of social distancing became a widespread infection control practice after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. COVID-19 guidance provided by occupational health authorities requires that—where reasonably practicable—social distancing be practiced as part of a number of different infection control strategies. This means that, if practicable, employers must implement social distancing requirements as part of their general duty requirement to maintain employee safety.

Earlier Instances of Social Distancing Measures

While the term social distancing has become prominent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its use predates that pandemic. In 2007, OSHA issued infection control guidelines for employers as a potential safeguard against a potential H1N1 outbreak, and these guidelines included instructions on how to effectively implement social distancing procedures.

Pre-germ theory guidance that recommended social distancing-like behaviours was also used as a response to a 16th century outbreak of the bubonic plague in the Italian port city of Alghero. The use of effective social distancing is believed to be part of the reason that the plague did not spread beyond that initial port city and penetrate inlying areas of Italy.

Social Distancing in Response to COVID-19

The use of social distancing became a nearly universal safety practice after the initial global spread of COVID-19. Every country that has offered COVID-specific OHS guidance included the use of social distancing as an important aspect of that guidance.

The amount of physical distance required for effective social distancing can vary depending on how effectively a pathogen can travel over a particular distance. For COVID-19, the recommended minimum distance is typically either two meters or six feet, depending on the jurisdiction.

The extent to which social distancing practices are legally required in workplaces varies depending on both the jurisdiction and the nature of the workplace. If it is impracticable to conduct business while maintaining social distance, then a workplace may instead be required to introduce alternative procedures, such as the mandatory use of temperature checks and regular testing.

Social Distancing Regulations

For employers, the legal source of social distancing guidance and requirements can be either an occupational health agency, such as OSHA, or a public health agency, such as the Centers for Disease Control.

In federal jurisdictions such as Canada, Germany, and the United States—as well as devolved-power jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom—sub-national governments (e.g., states, provinces) may have the chief responsibility for creating labour and public health requirements. This means that an employer’s specific social distancing obligations can vary depending on where they are located within a given country.

Despite these variations, employers in any jurisdiction with an advanced OHS regime are all subject to the same General Duty requirement to maintain a safe workplace. General duty rules require employers to consider “all of the circumstances” necessary to maintain a safe workplace, which means that social distancing may still be legally required in workplaces even if no governmental authority specifically orders its use.


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