When can a worker refuse to work?

A worker can refuse to work if he or she has reason to believe that one or more of the following is true:

  • Any machine, equipment or tool that the worker is using or is told to use is likely to endanger himself or herself or another worker.
  • The physical condition of the workplace or workstation is likely to endanger the worker.
  • Any machine, equipment or tool that the worker is using, or the physical condition of the workplace, contravenes the Act or regulations and is likely to endanger himself or herself or another worker.

What happens when a worker refuses unsafe work?

The worker must immediately tell the supervisor or employer that the work is being refused and explain why. (In Retail Stores, this would be the Manager or the Acting Manager.)

The supervisor or employer must investigate the situation immediately, in the presence of the worker and one of the following persons:

  • a joint committee member who represents workers, if there is one. If possible, this should be a certified member; or
  • a health and safety representative, in workplaces where there is no joint committee; or
  • another worker, who, because of knowledge, experience and training, has been chosen by the workers (or by the union) to represent them.
    The refusing worker must remain in a safe place near the workstation until the investigation is completed. This interval is known as the “first stage” of a work refusal. If the situation is resolved at this point, the worker will return to work.

What if the refusing worker is not satisfied with the result of the investigation?

The worker can continue to refuse the work if he or she has reasonable grounds for believing that the work continues to be unsafe. At this point, the “second stage” of a work refusal begins.

“Reasonable grounds” for continuing to refuse means that the worker has some objective information that makes him or her believe the work is still unsafe. The worker does not have to be correct in his or her knowledge or belief. For example: the refusing worker may have been told by other workers who have used a lift truck that the brakes sometimes fail.

What happens if a worker continues to refuse to work?

The worker, the employer or someone acting on behalf of either the worker or employer must notify a Ministry of Labour inspector. The inspector may come to the workplace to investigate the refusal or conduct an investigation over the telephone by consulting with the worker and the employer (or a representative of the employer). If there is a worker committee member, a worker health and safety representative or a worker selected by the worker’s trade union or, if there is no trade union, by the workers to represent the worker, they will also be consulted as part of the inspector’s investigation.

While waiting for the inspector’s investigation to be completed, the worker must remain in a safe place near the workstation, unless the employer assigns some other reasonable work during normal working hours. If no such work exists, the employer can give other directions to the worker. If the worker is covered by a collective agreement, any provision in it that covers this situation will apply.
The inspector must decide whether the work is likely to endanger the worker or another person. The inspector’s decision must be given, in writing, to the worker, the employer, and the worker representative, if there is one. If the inspector finds that the work is not likely to endanger anyone, the refusing worker is expected to return to work.

Can another worker be asked to do the work that was refused?

Yes. While waiting for the inspector to investigate and give a decision on the refusal, the employer or supervisor can ask another worker to do the work that was refused. The second worker must be told that the work was refused and why. This must be done in the presence of a committee member who represents workers, or a health and safety representative, or a worker representative chosen because of knowledge, experience and training.

The second worker has the same right to refuse as the first worker.

Is a worker paid while refusing to work?

The Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) has ruled that a refusing worker is considered to be at work during the first stage of a work refusal and is entitled to be paid at his or her appropriate rate.

A person acting as a worker representative during a work refusal is paid at either the regular or the premium rate, whichever is applicable.

Can an employer discipline a worker for refusing to work?

No. A worker has the duty to work in accordance with the Act and the regulations and has the right to seek their enforcement. The employer is not allowed to penalize, dismiss, discipline, suspend or threaten to do any of these things to a worker who has obeyed the law. This also applies if a worker has given evidence at an inquest or a prosecution under the Act or the regulations.
However, this provision does not apply if the work refusal was made in bad faith, or if the worker continues to refuse after the Ministry of Labour inspector finds that the work is not likely to endanger the worker.

What can a worker do if disciplined?

Beer Store workers should immediately contact their Union Representative if they are disciplined or threatened in any way for exercising their rights under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The union will act immediately on complaints.

The above Q&A was taken from A Guide to the Occupational Health and Safety Act published by the Ontario Ministry of Labour.

Other online resources:

Workers’ Health and Safety Centre

Ontario Ministry of Labour