Workers at an warehouse

Understanding the Right to Refuse Unsafe Work in Canada

In Canada, workers have three fundamental workplace rights under occupational health and safety legislation: the right to know about workplace hazards, the right to participate in workplace safety, and the right to refuse unsafe work. 

The third right is particularly important, as it empowers workers who identify serious, unusual, or unexpected dangers in their work and rightfully refuse to perform it. Nevertheless, it is important to understand how and when it is possible to refuse work so that the worker knows exactly what their rights and obligations are. 

Understanding the Right to Refuse Unsafe Work 

The right to refuse unsafe work allows employees to refuse tasks or duties they believe present a serious or imminent danger to their health and safety. Occupational health and safety legislation across Canada guarantees such right to ensure that no worker needs to perform tasks under such hazardous conditions. It is a vital component of workplace safety, empowering workers to take an active role in their well-being, but it is not universal. See below some of the conditions that limit such right: 

  • Essential services: In sectors like healthcare or emergency services, refusing work could endanger others’ lives. In such cases, the right to refuse must be carefully balanced with the duty to provide essential services. 
  • Reasonable grounds: The refusal must be based on reasonable grounds. This means the danger must be serious or imminent, not hypothetical or minor. For example, encountering a broken ladder is a valid reason to refuse work, whereas a slight discomfort from an imperfectly ergonomic setup may not qualify. 
  • Inherent danger: If danger is a common or expected part of the job, then refusing work because of it is not allowed. This is the case for occupations like firefighters and police officers, whose jobs inherently involve certain dangers. 

We have created this infographic to make it easier for you to understand whether you have the right to refuse work or not, based on simple questions you can answer when assessing your situation: 

Questions to ask to know if you can refuse work

Steps to Exercise the Right to Refuse Unsafe Work

When a worker identifies a serious hazard, the process to exercise this right typically includes: 

  1. Notification: Inform their supervisor or employer about the refusal and the reasons for it. 
  1. Investigation: The employer must investigate the concern immediately and take corrective action if necessary. 
  1. Resolution: If the issue is resolved, the worker can resume work. If not, the worker can escalate the matter to a health and safety committee or government inspector. 

HR and Health and Safety: Synergies That Protect Everyone’s Wellbeing 

For HR professionals, managers, and safety officers, understanding and supporting this right is crucial. Understanding ensures compliance with legislation and fosters a culture of safety and trust within the organization. As a result, encouraging open communication and swift action on safety concerns can significantly reduce workplace accidents and enhance employee morale. 

Safety Matters! HRdownloads Is Here to Help 

Canadian workers’ right to refuse unsafe work is a fundamental protection and is integral to maintaining safe workplaces. In light of that, by recognizing and upholding this right, organizations both comply with legal obligations and demonstrate a commitment to their employees’ health and safety. For HR and safety professionals, this knowledge is vital for fostering a workplace culture where safety is a shared responsibility and a top priority. 

As this can prove to be a complex subject, relying on specialists with a deep understanding of health and safety can be an important asset. Our HR experts are there to help you navigate occupational health and safety legislation, including the right to refuse unsafe work. We offer HR software, HR content, HR support, and hundreds of online training courses that include training on the rights of workers, how to refuse unsafe work, and investigation procedures. With a flexible and accessible platform devoted to education, you can assign and manage training and document completions at your fingertips, all from one secure platform. 

Book a free demo at a time that fits your schedule. Our HR experts will provide a free, no-obligation quote tailored to your HR needs in as little as one business day.