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Workers' Environmental Rights

Do I have the right to refuse to pollute?

A worker can refuse to work when she or he believes that the work does not meet the laws under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). CEPA explains this. CEPA is a federal law which has to be followed in every province and territory. To learn more about the environmental laws under CEPA, see the box on this page.

Among the provinces and territories, only in the Yukon does a worker's right to refuse to pollute go beyond the right defined in CEPA.

Do all workers have the right to refuse to pollute?

Yes. Any worker in Ontario can refuse to pollute when the worker believes her or his work doesn't meet CEPA's environmental protection laws.

Do I have the right to report workplace pollution?

When a worker reports to a CEPA inspector workplace pollution that the worker believes is illegal under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), CEPA is meant to secure the worker from being fired with "whistle blower protection". First, when a worker makes a report, she or he can ask that her or his name not be revealed. Second, it's illegal for the employer to fire, discipline or harass a worker who reports the employer to CEPA inspectors. CEPA's whistle blower protection, it should be noted, offers no security to the worker if the worker reports the employer to the media or to the public.

For private and public sector workers in Ontario, there is additional whistle blower protection. According to Ontario's Environmental Bill of Rights (PDF), a worker can ask for an "investigation" of the workplace when pollution at the workplace may have broken specific provincial environmental laws and caused harm to the environment. Whistle blower protection secures workers from being fired, disciplined or intimidated for asking Ontario's Environmental Commissioner for an investigation. To learn the titles of the laws under which an investigation can be made, see the box on this page.

While it's illegal for an employer to fire, discipline or try to intimidate workers for asking the Environmental Commissioner for an investigation, it is not against the law for the employer to fire, discipline or try to intimidate workers for reporting workplace pollution to the media or to the public.

Can I ask the Environmental Commissioner for an investigation, or make a report to a CEPA inspector when my contract states that I have to keep workplace information confidential?

When a worker's contract states that she or he has to keep workplace information confidential, it's not clear whether the worker can legally be fired for asking the Environment Commissioner for an investigation. Nor is it clear whether the worker can legally be fired for reporting workplace pollution that's illegal under CEPA.

A worker belonging to a union can speak about the collective agreement's confidentiality clause with her or his union steward.

What happens if I'm fired for refusing to pollute, or for making a report to a CEPA inspector, or for asking the Environmental Commissioner for an investigation?

It is the case that employers do fire, discipline or harass workers who refuse to pollute, or who report illegal workplace pollution. It's against the law, though, for an employer to do so, according to Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) when the pollution is illegal under the Act. However, it is unclear in CEPA how the employer can be stopped from disciplining or harassing a worker, or how the employer can be made to rehire a fired worker when the employer has acted illegally.

And sometimes employers do act illegally when workers ask the Environmental Commissioner for an investigation of the workplace. If this is the case, and the employer fires, disciplines or tries to intimidate a worker, the worker can make a complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The Ontario Labour Relations Board recommends that a worker get legal assistance before making a complaint.

Once the worker makes a complaint, it rests with the employer to prove that she or he didn't fire, discipline or intimidate the worker because of the investigation the worker asked for from the Environmental Commissioner. The employer has to rehire the worker, pay the worker lost wages or no longer discipline or intimidate the worker according to the Ontario Labour Relations Board's decision.

For a worker belonging to a union, a grievance procedure might be used if the worker's fired or disciplined for refusing to pollute, for making a report to a CEPA inspector, or for asking the Environmental Commissioner for an investigation.

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