Yes, a worker has the right to refuse unsafe work.
If a worker has reasonable cause to believe that carrying out a task or job will cause imminent harm or undue hazard to the health and safety of themselves and the people around them, they have the right to refuse to carry out the task or job.
What is the right to refuse unsafe work and how do I exercise these rights?
Workers in BC have three basic rights: the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to know about hazards in the workplace, and the right to participate in workplace health and safety decisions. These rights were achieved by the Labour Movement and enable workers, who have a reasonable cause to believe that performing a task or job will put themselves and others around them in danger, to refuse to perform the work.
In BC, workers’ rights and protections are set out in the Workers Compensation Act (the “Act”). The Occupational Health and Safety Regulation (the “Regulation”) stems from the authority in the Act. Together, the Act and the Regulation establish workers’ rights and how to exercise those rights through WorkSafeBC.
The Regulation states that “A person must not carry out or cause to be carried out any work process or operate or cause to be operated any tool, appliance or equipment if that person has reasonable cause to believe that to do so would create an undue hazard to the health and safety of any person.”
If a worker refuses unsafe work, they must immediately notify their supervisor or employer, who is then tasked with conducting an investigation and taking the appropriate steps to remedy the situation.
Workplace procedures should be in place to ensure the unsafe or hazardous situation is understood, reported, and finally, corrected. The worker may be temporarily assigned to a new task until the matter is resolved, with no loss in pay. More importantly, workers have the right to refuse unsafe work without the threat of discipline from their employers.
Can I be Reprimanded or Fired for Refusing Unsafe Work?
Under the Act, it is illegal for an employer or a union to threaten or punish an employee for refusing unsafe work or for exercising any right or carrying out any duty in accordance with the Regulation.
Steps to Follow When Work is Unsafe
1. Report the Unsafe Condition or Procedure
The worker must immediately report the unsafe condition or hazard to a supervisor or employer.
An investigation must be carried out immediately by the supervisor or employer who receives the report and the matter is to be fixed if possible. If, however, the supervisor or employer finds that the worker’s concern is not valid, this will then be reported back to the worker.
2. Continual Refusal After Supervisor or Employer has Said it is Safe to Resume
If the investigation does not resolve the matter and the worker continues to refuse the unsafe work, the supervisor or employer must investigate the matter in the presence of the worker who made the report.
It is the job of the supervisor or employer to make sure that an investigation takes place. They must ensure that steps are taken to eliminate the unsafe condition or hazard. The investigation must take place in the presence of a worker who made the report and in the presence of:
- a worker member of the joint committee;
- a worker who is selected by a trade union representing the worker; or
- any other reasonably available worker selected by the worker (no joint committee or trade union)
3. Notify WorkSafeBC if Work is Still Unsafe or Hazardous
If the matter is not resolved, the worker must then contact WorkSafeBC. The employer may also contact WorkSafeBC if the employee continues to refuse to perform the work. A prevention officer will conduct an investigation and take steps to resolve the issue.
Finally, if the employee, employer, or third-party disagrees with the decision from WorkSafeBC regarding claims, assessments, and health and safety enforcement matters, they may request a review or appeal the decision made from that review. Certain decisions may be appealed directly through the Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal.
Invoking the right to refuse unsafe work will trigger a variety of obligations on the part of the employer. That said, the right to refuse unsafe work cannot be used lightly by employees or under false pretenses. However, the Act does contain certain exceptions.
Specifically, there are two you need to be aware of: if the refusal consequently puts the life, health, or safety of another person at risk of danger; or, the danger inherent to the work is a normal condition of employment.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this article, and this website generally, is not intended as legal advice and cannot be relied upon as legal advice. To provide legal advice on your problem, a lawyer must first understand your specific situation.