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By: Jeffrey Cusack
| Last updated: March 19, 2021

What Does Lockdown Mean?

A lockdown is any set of procedures and policies that are designed to limit access to a given area, limit activity within a specific area, or both. Lockdowns are imposed on specific areas when the presence of a hazard makes it impossible for individuals to operate or move freely within that area without creating high levels of risk to themselves or others.

Safeopedia Explains Lockdown

Because lockdowns involve mandatory workplace shutdowns and potential restrictions on freedom of movement within the affected area, they are typically only used in situations where more targeted or prevention-focused safety measures are insufficient to maintain public safety.

A lockdown may be put in place due to workplace-specific hazards, such as contamination with radiation or another hazardous substance, or due to external risk factors such as the presence of an active shooter or the COVID-19 pandemic.

When a lockdown is related to an external hazard and goes beyond preventing access to a particular occupational setting it may be referred to as a “public lockdown."

Lockdown requirements that are related to workplace hazards and emergencies are typically imposed under the authority of a situation-specific emergency response regulation. The U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 lockdown of the Savannah River nuclear site is an example of this type of lockdown.

While public lockdowns can impose a number of different obligations on employers (which vary depending on the nature of the lockdown), the public nature of the lockdown means that these restrictions are generally not enacted by an occupational health and safety authority. Public lockdowns are typically ordered under the authority of public safety or public health agencies, and with the explicit agreement of the head of government. OHS agencies may assist by helping to enforce the lockdown or by providing compliance guidance to workplaces.

Lockdowns can vary in severity. A lockdown which completely restricts regular behavior within the affected area may be described as a “total lockdown” or “full lockdown”, whereas less-severe lockdowns are referred to as “partial lockdowns”.

COVID-19 Lockdown Measures

The use of lockdowns as a public safety measure became a prominent tool of many governments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns were implemented by governments as a way to restrict the public’s ability to move about freely, and as a result, to reduce the amount of interpersonal contact taking place between members of the public.

Lockdowns have been found to be an effective tool for reducing the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. As the virus cannot spread efficiently without relatively close contact—commonly stated to be six feet, or two metres, as a “rule of thumb”—lockdowns are able to reduce the rate of viral transmission to the point that the virus is unable to sustain itself within a given population.

Lockdown as a Measure of Last Resort

Lockdowns are an effective safety tool; however, because they impose harsh restrictions on people’s ability to operate normally within a given area, they are not used as a first-line of defense against hazards. The use of a lockdown is typically restricted to situations in which two criteria have been met:

  1. All other existing safety and hazard measures have either failed or are viewed as likely to fail
  2. The risk of harm associated with the hazard is considered to be unacceptably high

Whether or not a workplace is affected by a public lockdown will depend on both the severity of the lockdown and the service that the workplace provides. A partial public lockdown may allow most businesses to stay open so long as they implement various hazard controls, such as barriers between employees and customers (engineering controls), reductions in the number of people allowed in the workplace at any given time (administrative controls), and mandatory mask-wearing policies (PPE).

More severe lockdowns, such as those which include general stay-at-home orders, will result in many workplaces being shut-down completely; however, due to governmental, economic and supply chain necessities, a certain number of “essential” workplaces will be allowed to stay open even during most full lockdowns. These businesses are not exempt from the need to provide workers with reasonable protection against hazards associated with the lockdown; however, their obligations may be limited due to a lack of an existing regulatory framework to enforce and communicate them.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, OHS authorities sought to compensate for a lack of lockdown-specific OHS standards by publishing industry-specific safety guidance for workers in retail, meat processing, and other sectors. They also developed various provisional plans for enforcing safety measures, including a greater emphasis on whistleblowing. Public health and/or safety agencies may also issue workplace specific rules, creating a situation in which responsibility for occupational safety becomes a shared competency between regular OHS authorities and public health authorities.


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