Health and Safety Rights of Workers
What are the Health and Safety Rights of Workers?
One of the fundamental components of the Occupational Health and Safety Act is the rights that workers and supervisors have. These fundamental rights ensure workers remain safe and go home at the end of the day and help ensure the health and safety internal responsibility system is strong in the workplace.
The Worker (and Supervisor) Health and Safety Rights found in the Occupational Health and Safety Act are:
- The Right to Know
- The Right to Participate
- The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work
Employers are required under the law to ensure that workers are aware of and understand these rights. Although employers may comply with this and ensure workers are aware of their rights, do they ensure their workers understand these rights and what each of them means to the worker? In many instances, the answer is no.
The Right to Know
Workers have the right to know about the hazards and the dangers in the workplace and how to work safely. Workers need to be informed of the workplace and job-specific hazards and how to perform the job safely prior to starting a new job or starting a new position in the same company. Regardless of experience, every workplace is different and the same process in one facility will differ slightly in another facility. Employers must provide workers with information, instruction and training which includes a review of written procedures with the worker, explaining the hazards and showing them how to work safely and manage any hazardous situations that arise. They must supervise the workers to ensure they are following the procedures and provide feedback.
The Right to Participate
Workers have the right to participate in Health and Safety, which ranges from pointing out hazards in the workplace, participating in inspections, being invited to participate in health and safety meetings and completing their mandatory health and safety training. Volunteering to be a Health and Safety Representative or be a member of the Joint Health and Safety Committee is another way to participate in Health and Safety in the workplace.
The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work
Workers have the right to refuse unsafe work if they have reason to believe that it puts them or a fellow worker in danger. If a task puts a worker in danger, they have the right to refuse and an investigation will take place by the worker, supervisor and the health and safety representative for the workers to determine whether the work is suitable and safe. If a consensus cannot be reached a Ministry of Labour inspector will be called in to assist with finding a solution. A worker who believes that he or she is endangered by workplace violence may also refuse work.
When a worker invokes any of their fundamental rights under the OHS Act, whether it is their right to know, right to participate and/or their right to refuse unsafe work, the employer can not punish the worker because of the refusal. Under section 50 of the OHSA, workers are protected from reprisals. This means:
- The employer is not allowed to:
- Fire or threaten to fire you
- Suspend or discipline you, or threaten to do so
- Intimidate or coerce you including, for example, bullying you or strongly encouraging you not to report
- Impose any penalty upon you including, for example, transferring you to another position, shift or work location, reducing or changing your hours or denying you a raise or benefits that you’re entitled to
- Because you, as a worker have:
- Acted on any of your rights under the OHS Act (for example, refusing to perform work you believe is unsafe)
- Followed or asked your employer to follow Ontario’s occupational health and safety laws
- Given information to a ministry of labour, training and skills development inspector or followed an inspector’s order
- Testified at a hearing about occupational health and safety enforcement:
- In court
- In front of the Ontario labour relations board (OLRB)
- At a grievance arbitration
- At a coroner’s inquest
For all workers, unionized or non-unionized, if you believe you’ve been fired or punished for exercising your rights under the OHS Act, you can file a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The OLRB is an independent tribunal that can review a worker’s reprisal complaint or a referral from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development to try to mediate a settlement. If a settlement cannot be reached, the OLRB may hold a consultation or hearing and may make orders to:
- Remove or change any penalty the employer may have carried out
- Reinstate/rehire the worker
- Compensate the worker for related losses
A Unionized Worker may choose to either ask the union to file a grievance under the collective agreement or help the worker file a complaint with the OLRB or file a complaint with the OLRB
on their own.
For a unionized or non-unionized worker, they can contact the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development for more information about the resources available to file a complaint or when a Ministry Inspector can help start the process by making a referral to the OLRB.
If an Employer is facing a reprisal allegation, it is up to you to prove to the OLRB that there was no reprisal.
There is a difference in the effectiveness of an Employer’s message between telling the worker that they have rights and what their rights are and explaining to the worker what their rights are using practical applications based on the workplace. Using practical applications provides an extraordinarily strong indication that the worker understands their rights.
Using the above is a basis to start with when explaining worker rights to the workers but employers also need to incorporate workplace-specific circumstances and a practical component for them to understand. If the worker does not understand their rights and there is an incident, the employer is liable and subject to fines and criminal charges.
If you have questions about whether your workers understand their rights or specific instances in your workplace where you are not sure if you are maintaining your worker’s health and safety rights as stated, please feel free to contact HeartZap Safety Training and Equipment, who can explain these requirements further and help you put the required measures in place.