10/20/2015 19:21 EDT | Updated 10/20/2016 01:12 EDT

Saskatchewan pauses mandatory flu shot policy for health-care workers

REGINA — Health officials in Saskatchewan say health-care workers won't be forced to get a flu shot or wear a surgical mask while caring for patients.

The Medical Health Officers' Council of Saskatchewan says getting the shot or wearing a mask will be voluntary this flu season while health authorities review a ruling from Ontario.

An arbitrator in Ontario struck down a policy there which forced health-care workers to wear a mask if they don't get the influenza vaccine.

The arbitrator said the policy was unreasonable and a coercive tool to force heath-care workers to get the flu shot.

Dr. David Torr, chairman of the council, says they need time to review the decision and volume of medical and scientific evidence.

Saskatchewan implemented a mandatory vaccinate or mask policy last year to minimize the spread of influenza for patient safety.

"Our biggest defence and nobody, I think, disputes that anywhere, is that vaccine is the best defence we have against influenza," said Torr. "But we have done is move towards additional measures in the event that you can't vaccinate for whatever reason, what other measures can you take, and so that's why we moved to the immunize or mask policy."

"Now in Ontario, it was unfortunately, looked at more as a punitive-type of policy and that was not at all our intention in Saskatchewan," Torr added.

Saskatchewan was the second province after British Columbia to introduce an immunize or mask policy.

A B.C. health-care workers union filed a grievance against the policy, suggesting it would impinge on the privacy of workers because it would be interpreted as a visible declaration that they had forgone flu shots. As well, the union raised concerns that some workers covered by the policy might not be able to do their jobs while wearing a mask — speech therapists, for instance.

However, an arbitrator appointed by the B.C. Labour Relations Board found that the policy is reasonable, and a valid exercise of the employer's management rights.

"We want to review what exactly has transpired and what led to this differential and if there's anything we need to look at to adjust our policy here," said Torr.

Jennifer Graham, The Canadian Press