Know the law on work refusals

Labour board rules employer cannot hide behind misconduct allegations if terminating an employee for a work refusal.
By Jacqueline Connor
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/25/2002

Faulty equipment, unsafe production procedures, inadequate training, toxic substances, violence — these are just a few of the prominent health and safety issues in the workplace today. Employers no longer just have ethical responsibilities to provide for the health and safety of their employees, but also legal ones. In the face of significant penalties, employers must ensure that they have effective workplace practices in place.

Occupational health and safety is a responsibility which must be shared between employers and workers, as they are the parties in the best position to identify problems and to develop solutions. In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act gives workers the right to refuse work that the employee believes to be unsafe. Where such a work refusal occurs, the act sets out a specific procedure that must be followed. An employer ignores this procedure to its detriment, as one company discovered in a recent Ontario Labour Relations Board decision.

In this dispute, the employer, a manufacturer and designer of high-speed printers, hired a senior mechanical engineer to assist in the development of a new printer. Three weeks later, the newly hired engineer was terminated, allegedly for misconduct. In his complaint to the board, the dismissed employee asserted that the real reason for his dismissal was his refusal on two occasions to conduct what he believed were unsafe experiments on a solvent-based cleaning system for the new printer. His belief was based on significant allergic reactions he suffered during previous experiences working with similar chemicals.