Canadian workplaces have to confront the reality of increased safety risks to workers if they are required to attend to work in essential services, such as healthcare or social services, during the current pandemic crisis. While they may face the increased pressures that come with potential increased risks, workers in Canada continue to have the protection of provincial health and safety legislation that includes the right to refuse work when they believe their own safety is in peril.
In healthcare, for example, nurses at the London Health Sciences Centre exercised this right as noted in this news article. The union representing the nurses alleged that the employer did not provide facemasks as part of a personal protective equipment (PPE) requirement for nurses working in a cancer clinic. In correctional services, prison guards in an Ottawa jail refused to work due to the lack of COVID-19 screening for people entering the jail, as noted in this news article.
Both situations provide us with textbook examples of the rationale for work refusal. It begins with the reasonable belief on the part of the worker that the working conditions are unsafe. The worker must alert the employer to the potential danger and indicate their intent to refuse to do the work. The employer must investigate and take corrective action(s) if there is an existing danger to the workers.
The challenge facing the employer in both situations is the increasing scarcity of masks for PPE and the lack of availability of COVID-19 screening and testing tools. How can the employer provide corrective measures if the equipment is just not available?
As a result, the increased vigilance and reactions in both examples are understandable. Additionally, any current situation where service workers feel that they are at risk is heightened by their growing sense of fear. Fear that they will contract the virus. Fear that they will unknowingly infect someone else. Fear that the consequences of exposure may end with devastating results.
While it seems almost impossible to separate the emotional reaction of fear from the recognition of a workplace hazard, the rules must prevail—as noted in this posting by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which gives clear directions to unionized workers that “fear alone of a potential exposure will not be an adequate reason to refuse work.”
When people start to emotionally escalate into fear, it can quickly turn into panic and result in chaos. We need to help each other to de-escalate out of panic by providing rational and legitimate fact-based information. In a time of turbulence, it is important to go back to the basics and reinforce what the ground rules are for safety protection. The PSAC posting provides excellent and extensive information from a union perspective. From the employers’ side, the law firm of McCarthy Tetrault provides this posting that reiterates the ground rules and circumstances that must be followed in the case of work refusals in order to protect workers and workplaces.
Usually the union and the employer are on opposite sides of a work-related issue. In this current climate, it is heartening to know that the messages are unified in support of protecting each other with logic and reason, through the crisis of this COVID-19 pandemic.
- What are the conditions in your current place of work that could prompt a work refusal by employees?
- What measures can an employer put into place to provide additional protection for employees in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis?
- How can employees who work in service environments ensure that they are self-protecting and meeting their essential job requirements?