We’re all striving for zero incidents, and we believe that no employee should ever be exposed to danger during their workday – but even in the safest of operations, there could be times when a worker is asked to do something they feel is unsafe.
What happens when it doesn’t feel right?
Canadian Occupational Health and Safety (COHS) gives every worker the right to refuse dangerous work as long as they have reasonable cause to believe that it presents a danger to either themselves or others.
What constitutes ‘danger’?
COHS defines danger as:
Any hazard, condition or activity that could reasonably be expected to be an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected or the activity altered
In other words, no one has to operate machinery, work in a place or perform an activity if it’s not safe. The only exception to this is when the refusal puts the life, health or safety of another person directly in danger; or if the danger is a normal condition of employment.
What you should know as a worker
As a worker, you need to know that it’s your right to refuse work that you feel is dangerous. You should report the danger to your supervisor, and state your intent to refuse the work. If it can’t be resolved, or your employer disagrees with your assessment, it may be necessary to involve a third party, but you can be assured that you are within your rights to be assigned to another task in the meantime.
What you should know as an employer
As an employer, it’s important for you to respect the concerns of any employee as long as there is a legitimate cause. In reality, there are times when it’s just safest to stop the job.
It’s not acceptable to discipline or suspend an employee who refuses unsafe work, but it is acceptable to assign them to another task with no loss of pay until the matter is resolved. It’s your legal requirement to conduct a full investigation and ensure either that the work is safe, or that the hazards are addressed. You can not assign another employee to that task until it’s been confirmed that it is safe.
Sometimes, it may be impossible to reach an agreement on whether a task is dangerous or not. To learn more about dealing with disputes, check out this information on the Right to Refuse Dangerous Work. If your organizations is provincially, rather than federally, regulated, you should also check the regulations specific to your province.
If you’d like to share information on the right to refuse dangerous work with your colleagues and workers, WorkSafeBC has produced a Toolbox Meeting Guide and informative poster, which are a valuable starting point for organizations in any jurisdiction.
In our experience, companies with a solid safety culture are less likely to find themselves in a situation where a worker feels they are being asked to engage in dangerous work. In those organizations, even the newest worker understands that safety is a top priority for everyone, from management down. You can learn more about that in these posts about safety culture.