Fri. Mar 1st, 2024
Understanding workers' rights in hazardous working conditions

When it comes to health and safety, workers in Canada have three basic rights—no matter the role or industry they’re in. Circumstances make all the difference to how these rights apply and are interpreted, which is why understanding each of them and how they work is critical to maintaining a healthy and safe workplace.

For example, whether workers are operating a machine or managing the floor to make sure employees are following protocol, each specific industry and task poses unique hazards.

So, how are workers’ rights affected by industry and role? Are there blurred lines when it comes to basic rights if a job must be done? Is it possible for rights to turn into privilege? Knowing the ins and outs of these rules can help define the answers.

Workers’ Three Rights

First up is the right to know. Workers have the right to be informed by their employer of any known or likely hazards in the workplace. Workers must be provided with the appropriate information, instructions, education, training, and supervision necessary to protect their health and safety before the work begins.

The second is the right to participate. Workers must be allowed to have input on the steps that are taken by their employer to ensure a healthy and safe workplace. This right can change in scope depending on factors like the work environment and the size of the team. For instance, workers can provide input by participating as members of a health and safety committee, or by reporting concerns when they witness a potential hazard.

The third right is the right to refuse. All workers have the right to refuse work if they have reason to believe it is unsafe or dangerous to themselves or others. The right to refuse work must be used for serious and imminent hazards, not to solve mundane problems or complaints. However, workers shouldn’t be afraid of exercising their right to refuse work when they believe that the work will endanger their health or safety, or that of a co-worker’s. Another condition: The worker must be present in the workplace and needs to inform their supervisor they are refusing work.

Health and Safety Is Always a Right

Each of these rights come with their own set of rules, which can sometimes cause workers to question what they have the right to do, or in some cases, not do—especially when various hazards are present on a recurring basis.

Workers’ rights can be a hot topic in environments like a metalworking shop, where the risk of heat stress, cuts and abrasions, and burns are a possibility. For example, do workers really have the right to refuse work that is perceived as unsafe? Part of this answer is knowing what the inherent risks of the job are and the circumstances of the work.

Each jurisdiction will have a slightly different definition, criteria, and procedures for refusing dangerous work, however, the intent is the same.

For example, federal occupational health and safety legislation 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.”

However, when it comes to workplace hazards, there may be some situations where the right to refuse work is limited. For example, if not doing a task puts another person’s life, health, or safety directly in danger, or if the danger is a normal condition of employment, the worker may have restrictions for refusing work. Workers with these restrictions should clarify the right to refuse with their union representatives, health and safety committees or representatives, and supervisors.

Limitations like the ones mentioned previously are part of the reason why the first two rights are so important.

In industries with known risks, it’s critical for workplaces to prioritize the right to know and the right to participate. This includes collaborating with workers to identify and assess the hazards and making sure appropriate control measures are in place to eliminate or reduce the risks. Proper training, education, and supervision also play a role in keeping workers safe, especially when the job or work site comes with its own set of risks.

The second right—the right to participate— also is there to support the safety of workers. It’s important for workers to know that they’re able to report hazards, and that their concerns will be investigated. When workers know that they can have an effect, workplaces become safer and employees get a boost in job satisfaction and productivity. It’s a win-win.

The Bottom Line of Worker’s Rights

Employers have a general duty to take all reasonable precautions to protect their workers. But to maintain a healthy and safe environment, collaboration is key.

Employers need to create a work environment that eliminates or reduces the risks of hazards in the workplace, which requires workers to exercise their right to know about the hazards and to provide input on how to make the workplace safer. In addition, education, training, and supervision are important for keeping workers healthy and safe.

These are tools that don’t always come in a toolbox, but they are necessary for getting the job done right, and more importantly, getting it done safely.

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