A bill pending in Parliament has unions concerned that safety protections for federally regulated workers will be undermined if it’s passed. Bill C-4, which had its first reading on Oct. 22, 2013, proposes changes to a slew of federal laws, including the Canada Labour Code, which covers workplace safety in Part II.
There are two proposed changes that seems to be the focus of most of the criticism: those to the definition of “danger” and to the work refusal process.
Currently, Sec. 122(1) defines “danger” to mean any existing or potential hazard or condition or any current or future activity that could reasonably be expected to cause injury or illness to a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected, or the activity altered, whether or not the injury or illness occurs immediately after the exposure to the hazard, condition or activity, and includes any exposure to a hazardous substance that is likely to result in a chronic illness, in disease or in damage to the reproductive system
Bill C-4 would change the definition in Sec. 122(1) to say that “danger” means 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.
The Canada Labour Congress (CLC) claims that the proposed change waters down the definition and endangers workers.
Bill C-4 also proposes changes to the unsafe work refusal process. The CLC argues that the two changes taken together limit the right to refuse dangerous work to imminent or serious threats to the life or health of a person.
This interpretation may be correct but it’s also consistent with other OHS laws in Canada.
Other jurisdictions also limit the right to refuse dangerous work. For example, in Alberta, a worker may refuse work if he believes it poses an “imminent danger” to himself or others. “Imminent danger” is defined as danger that isn’t normal for that occupation or a danger under which a person engaged in that occupation wouldn’t normally carry out the person’s work.
And in Ontario, the right to refuse doesn’t apply to dangers inherent in the worker’s work or a normal condition of the worker’s employment.
Why are there such limits? Because a work refusal triggers a whole process that can bring operations to a halt. So it’s not unreasonable for the right to apply only to circumstances involving unusual dangers that pose more immediate threats to safety and must be quickly addressed.
And remember that, setting aside the right to refuse, all employers still have a general duty to protect workers from foreseeable hazards, including those that could cause future harm such as asbestos, second-hand smoke, etc. So workers are protected from such hazards even if they don’t have a right to refuse work because of them.
So what do you think of these proposed changes? Are they a positive move? A neutral one? A regression that puts workers at risk? Tell us your view in the comments section below.