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You have the right to refuse work you think might endanger your health and safety

An important health and safety message for education workers returning to work during COVID-19

As schools reopen this week, the Alberta Federation of Labour would like to remind all teachers, principals, education assistants, bus drivers, custodial, administrative and other educational support staff of their rights as workers as enshrined in the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act.

To all education workers, we want to say: yes, education is important, yes, your students are important, but please put this into perspective, we are in the middle of a pandemic, which could be over within a year, and this is your health and safety at risk. At the heart of OHS is the precautionary principle, which states that when health is at risk, when lives are at risk, you need to err on the side of caution. The following are your rights:

Your employer has a legal obligation to ensure that your work environment is safe and healthy.

"Every employer shall ensure... the health and safety of... workers engaged in the work of that employer"
Section 3(1)(a)(i) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act

You have four key workplace health and safety rights:

The right to know

You have the right to know about hazards in your workplace, including hazards related to COVID-19. Your employer has a legal obligation to identify these hazards and make plans to address them. Your employer MUST develop a formal, written plan for dealing with COVID-19. Ask to see it – it’s your right!

The right to participate

You have the right to participate in efforts to keep your workplace safe. That means your employer has to listen to your concerns. Ask questions! Raise concerns! Make suggestions aimed at improving your workplace COVID-19 safety plan! Don’t be afraid to speak out – it’s your right!

The right to be free from reprisal

It is illegal for your employer to fire, discipline or otherwise punish you for exercising your workplace health and safety rights. If this happens, call your union representative (if your workplace in unionized) or Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Contact Centre at 1-866-415-8690 or 780-415-8690 (if you work at a non-union job).

The right to refuse

You have the right to refuse work that you think might endanger your health and safety. This includes instances where you think your employer is not following the guidelines issued by public health authorities on things like physical distancing. If you want to exercise your “right to refuse,” follow the steps below.

Exercising your right to refuse

As discussed, workers have the right to refuse work if they have reasonable grounds to believe the work is unsafe or dangerous to themselves or others. Here are the steps to follow if you want to initiate a work refusal:

  1. Inform your employer or supervisor that you are refusing unsafe work and explain why. Make it clear that your refusal is based on a workplace health and safety concern. It’s always a good idea to document this step.
  2. Your employer must immediately remove the danger or inspect the work with you and your health and safety representative (if available) or another worker of your choosing. The employer must also write a work refusal report and give you a copy.
  3. You may be reassigned to do other work while the investigation is underway but you cannot lose pay during an unsafe work refusal or be fired.
  4. If the work is not made safe, you can continue to refuse and call Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Contact Centre – 1-866-415-8690, Edmonton – 780-415-8690. The contact centre is open 24/7, all calls are confidential, and they will take anonymous calls.
  5. Another worker can be assigned to the work you refused but they have to be told about your refusal, the reason you refused, and why the employer thinks the work is safe. That worker also has the right to refuse unsafe work.

Remember, if you’re a unionized worker, always contact your union representative to let them know what is happening.

A few months ago, the Alberta Federation of Labour produced a document for workers during COVID-19, please see the document for more information.