The Right to Refuse Work

Most employees in Ontario have a right to refuse or stop work where health and safety are in danger, as defined under Part V of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

But what exactly does that mean, how does an employee report unsafe work and what obligations does an employer have to investigate such reports?

What is the Right to Refuse Work?

Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act affords workers the right to refuse work that they believe is unsafe for themselves or someone else. An employee who believes that they may be at risk of workplace violence also has the right to refuse work.

The OHSA stipulates a specific procedure that must be followed in the event of work refusal. It is crucial that every employee, employer, supervisor and all members of a JHSC clearly understand the procedure for lawful refusal of work.

What are the Stages of Work Refusal?

When an employee feels that the work they are being asked to do will put them or someone else at risk and they’ve made a decision to refuse work, there are typically two stages to the process. They are:

Stage One

  1. An employee deems the work that they are asked to do as unsafe.
  2. The employee reports their refusal to their supervisor or employer. Depending on the organization, they may also report the work refusal to their JHSC representative.
  3. The supervisor or employer will investigate – the employee and JHSC representative will be present.
  4. The issue will be resolved. Or, if it is not, the second stage of the process will commence.

Stage Two

  1. When there is reasonable grounds to believe that work is unsafe, the employee will continue to refuse work. Either the employee or the employer will contact the MOL.
  2. The MOL will investigate – a designated individual from the employer will be present.
  3. The MOL will provide the employee and the company representative with a written report of their findings.
  4. Required changes will be made, if found. The employee will return to work.

While the company is waiting for the MOL to investigate, they may offer the refusing employee other work provided it does not conflict with CBA. They may also offer the refused work to another employee, but they must inform that employee that the work being offered is subject of a work refusal.

Can All Employees Refuse Unsafe Work?

The right to refuse unsafe work extends to most, but not all, employees. The right to refuse unsafe work is limited for:

  • Police Officers
  • Firefighters
  • Anyone employed in an operational capacity at a correctional institution or similar facility.
  • Healthcare workers and those employed in places like hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities, etc.

When Can an Employee Refuse Work?

Employees have the right to refuse work if they believe that:

  • The use of a specific machine, piece of equipment or tool is likely to cause them or someone else harm. [clause 43(3)(a)]
  • The physical condition or their workstation or working environment will endanger their health or well-being. [clause 43(3)(b)]
  • They are likely to be the victim of workplace violence. [clause 43(3)(b.1)]
  • That any piece of machinery, equipment or tool that they are using, or the physical working environment, contravenes the OHSA or regulations and is likely to cause them or someone else harm. [clause 43(3)]

Is an Employee Paid while Refusing Work

It is the view of the MOL that an employee is considered to be ‘at work’ during the first stage of work refusal and should continue to be paid at their regular rate of pay.

Can an Employee be disciplined for Refusing Work?

Employers are prohibited from dismissing, penalizing, suspending or threatening any of the aforementioned things to any employee who has exercised their right to refuse unsafe work.

Where to go for More Information

People Store is committed to championing a safe working environment for all employees. If you are unsure, or feel that the work you are being asked to do might put you or someone else at risk – stop what you are doing, report the issue to your immediate supervisor and call your People Store account representative for more information.

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