In Ontario, all workers are guaranteed certain rights pursuant to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “Act”), which came into force in 1979. Since the Act’s inception, various amendments have been made establishing new safety procedures and rights for workers in the workplace.
The Act recognizes three fundamental rights for all workers in Ontario:
1. The Right to Know
Employers and supervisors have an obligation to ensure that workers know about all workplace hazards and how those hazards may hurt them. These workplace hazards include those presented by people, equipment, materials, the environment and processes.
Before workers are exposed to hazards, employers are required to provide the appropriate information, instructions, education, supervision, and occupational health and safety training, so that they know how to protect themselves.
For example, information can come in different forms such as product labels, safety data sheets or workplace policies. Verbal or written instructions can be provided by a supervisor, another worker or external providers. Additionally, training can happen within the workplace delivered by a worker, online or through an external agency.
Specific examples of information that should be provided to workers are:
- Identifying workplace hazards in day to day operations;
- Inspections of equipment;
- Safe work policies, procedures and codes of practice, as required by both the legislation and the workplace itself;
- Emergency procedures, emergency evacuation, first aid procedures, incident reporting, and investigation procedures;
- Meeting the requirements of the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (“WHMIS”), so that workers know about the chemical and biological material hazards from the products they work with.
2. The Right to Participate
The right to participate entitles workers to ask questions about issues concerning the health and safety of their workplace.
The right to participate may also come through the Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSC) or select designated Health and Safety representatives. These workers become responsible for reporting all hazards found in the workplace to their employers. They can assess, identify and control workplace health and safety hazards and certified JHSC members can conduct workplace investigations for serious complaints. JHSCs have the right to make recommendations to employers about health and safety improvements, and the Act requires employers to reply in writing.
By reporting unsafe working conditions, workers help to determine which hazards are tolerable in the workplace and which ones should be removed.
3. The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work
Workers have the right to refuse working conditions if they believe that these conditions are unsafe for them or their coworkers. Part V of the Act includes a detailed process by which workers should refuse unsafe working conditions. In Ontario, the common steps taken when a worker exercises their right to refuse unsafe work are:
- The worker believes work is unsafe;
- The worker reports their work refusal to either their supervisor, employer, worker safety representative while staying in a safe place;
- The employer or supervisor investigates the workplace conditions in the presence of the worker and the worker safety representative;
- The issue is resolved, and the worker goes back to work;
- The issue is not resolved and the investigation proceeds to the second stage.
- With reasonable grounds to believe work is still unsafe, the worker will continue to refuse to work and remains in a safe place.
- The worker or employer or someone representing worker or employer will call the Ministry of Labour (“MOL”) who will investigate the workplace in the presence of a management representative;
- The Inspector will give a decision to a worker, management representative and safety representative in writing;
- Workplace changes are made if required or ordered and the worker returns to work.
Pending the MOL investigation, the refusing worker may be offered other work if it doesn’t conflict with a collective agreement. Refused work may be offered to another worker, but management must inform the new worker, in the presence of a JHSC member or Health and Safety representative, that the offered work is the subject of work refusal.
Workers need to know that they cannot be punished, reprimanded or fear reprisal for exercising their rights to know, participate and refuse unsafe work. This is the law and these rights are provided so that workers do not need to choose between their health and safety and their job.
Employment lawyers at Monkhouse Law specialize in workplace law and can help navigate occupational health and safety issues for both employees and employers. Learn more about our team or contact us for a free 30 minute phone consultation.