HR Glossary  /  Health and Safety  /  The right to refuse unsafe work 

The right to refuse unsafe work 

What is the right to refuse unsafe work?  

All workers have the right to a safe and healthy workplace. To ensure this, occupational health and safety legislation across Canada provides all workers with three key rights: the right to know, the right to participate, and the right to refuse unsafe work. 

What is the right to refuse unsafe work in Canada? 

The right to refuse unsafe work is one of three key health and safety rights employees in Canada have. The right to refuse unsafe work means employees can refuse to undertake work if they have reasonable grounds and sincerely believe the work poses an immediate, imminent, or serious threat to their health and safety or to another person. Work refusals should be based on a real and sincere belief that continuing to perform work is dangerous and may cause injury or even death. There are some professions and instances where work cannot be refused, but these vary across jurisdictions and industries. The other two key rights are the right to know and the right to participate. 

What is the right to know?

The right to know is one of three key health and safety rights employees in Canada have. Employees have the right to know about health and safety matters in the workplace. This includes but is not limited to: 

  • Known or likely hazards they may be exposed to or encounter when performing their job; 
  • Safe work policies, procedures, and codes of practice; and 
  • Emergency procedures.  

Employers must provide the information, health and safety training, and supervision needed to protect employees. The right to know may also include the right to receive communication in an accessible format, like Braille, sign language, or oral communication if needed. The other two key rights are the right to participate and the right to refuse unsafe work. 

What is the right to participate? 

The right to participate is one of three key health and safety rights employees in Canada have. All workers have the right to participate in decisions and activities relating to health and safety. This may include: 

  • Identifying and reporting any concerns related to health and safety in the workplace; 
  • Selecting another employee to represent workers as part of a health and safety committee or as a health and safety representative; 
  • Being a health and safety representative or committee member; and 
  • Providing their employer with suggestions to improve health and safety in the workplace. 

Employers should look for ways to empower and support this participation as part of their broader health and safety program. The other two key rights are the right to know and the right to refuse unsafe work. 

Can I fire a worker who is refusing work? 

You cannot fire a worker who is refusing work because they believe it to be unsafe. Employees cannot be subject to discipline or reprisal when they are exercising their right to refuse unsafe work. In this instance, discipline or reprisal includes penalizing, dismissing, suspending, or threatening an employee. Some jurisdictions have exceptions to the general rule of no discipline in extreme circumstances: for example, if an employee continuously abuses their right to refuse unsafe work or makes refusals in bad faith. However, work refusals should be carefully considered, and it is almost always most efficient to work with the employee to help them understand the controls in place to protect the employee so that you can get them back to work while ensuring their safety. 

Resources:  

  • Right to Refuse Dangerous Work Policy – Federal 
  • Right to Refuse Unsafe Work and Work Refusals Training 

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