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Unsafe Work (The Right to refuse unsafe work)

What is unsafe work?

Unsafe work is work that is likely to endanger a worker.

Can I refuse to do unsafe work?

Yes, a worker can refuse work she or he believes might endanger herself or himself, or endanger a co worker. Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act explains this.

When can't I refuse unsafe work?

A worker can't refuse unsafe work when those unsafe work conditions are a part of the work, or a normal work condition. Nor can a worker refuse unsafe work when the refusal directly endangers another person's life, health or safety.

So corrections workers, firefighters, police, and health care workers cannot exercise the right to refuse unsafe work, except in certain circumstances.

Can all workers refuse unsafe work?

Domestic workers and agricultural workers can't exercise this right.

What's the proper procedure if I'm going to refuse unsafe work?

1. Report and stay on site for the joint investigation

The worker's priority is reporting immediately to the supervisor the refusal to work and the related safety concern. Remaining on site for the shift, while taking every measure to report the refusal, minimizes complications down the road.

Together, the supervisor and the worker investigate the work, along with
  • a worker on the health and safety committee, or a worker health and safety representative, or
  • if there's no committee or worker health and safety representative, a worker chosen by the refusing worker.

If the work is safe, or it is made safe, then the worker returns to work. But if the worker continues to believe the work is unsafe, the worker can continue refusing the work.

2. Inspector's Investigation

The work is investigated again, if the refusal continues. The refusing worker, or a representative of the refusing worker can call a government inspector at the Ministry of Labour. Go to the Ministry of Labour for addresses and phone numbers of regional offices. Or phone the Occupational Health and Safety Branch of the Ministry at 1-800-268-8013, free of charge from anywhere in the province.

The inspector's investigation decides whether the work is likely to endanger the worker or anyone else. The inspector's decision is given in writing to the worker, the worker's representative, and the employer. The worker returns to work if the inspector decides the work isn't dangerous.

A worker who disagrees with the inspector's decision can appeal it - that is, have the decision investigated by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. For information on the appeal process, go to the ONTARIO LABOUR RELATIONS BOARD.

Will I be paid while I refuse to work?

While the law is not clear, when there has been disagreement over pay, the Ontario Labour Relations Board has decided that the refusing worker is paid until the joint investigation is complete.

While waiting for the inspector's investigation, if there is one, the supervisor can assign the refusing worker to do other work. A worker covered by a collective agreement follows the agreement's specifications on work reassignment during a refusal.

Can my supervisor assign the refused work to another worker?

While waiting for the inspector's decision, the refused work can be assigned to another worker. First, the other worker must be told about the refusal and the safety concerns in front of a worker health and safety representative, or, if there is none, in front of a worker who is chosen because of her or his knowledge, experience and training. The worker assigned to do the refused work can refuse it, too.

Can I be fired or disciplined for refusing work I believe is unsafe?

Workers' hesitation to use the right to refuse is well grounded, since refusing workers sometimes do get fired or disciplined. Following the steps of the refusal procedure helps a refusing worker to protect her or his job. Still, it's illegal for a supervisor or employer in Ontario to dismiss or discipline a worker for refusing work she or he believes is unsafe.

If a worker suspects that she or he has been fired or punished for refusing unsafe work, the worker can use the grievance procedure under a collective agreement. A worker's who's not unionized can make a complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. For more information on making a complaint, read Unlawful Reprisal Applications under Section 50 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

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