COVID-19 and the Right to Refuse Dangerous Work

“COVID-19 presents unique and unprecedented risks for our members. We believe our members have the right to refuse to perform dangerous work if they reasonably feel they are in danger.”

Thomas Hesse, President, UFCW Local 401

During the economic and health challenge presented by COVID-19, while many Albertans are told to “stay at home,” UFCW Local 401 members are being asked to continue to attend work. Many consider our work to be critical for the public good.

UFCW Local 401 members working in healthcare facilities, grocery stores, and food processing facilities are celebrated as heroes. But even heroes need rights and protections.

Your union contract continues to be in force during the COVID-19 pandemic, as do provincial and federal laws and regulations around labour rights and occupational health and safety. The role of our union in educating and empowering our members and enforcing their rights is now more important than ever.

As COVID-19 spreads, it is important that our members know about laws protecting workers. An important law to know about is a worker’s right to refuse dangerous work.

Here’s a shareable graphic with some important steps to take when exercising your right to refuse dangerous work.  Read on for some other key details:

Important to know

All workers in Alberta have the legal right to refuse dangerous work and are protected from reprisal for exercising this right.

Under labour laws, the general rule at the worksite is that workers must obey management directions and wait for their objections to be handled in the grievance procedure in their collective agreement. The right to refuse unsafe work is a historical exception to the “work now, grieve later” rule.

One of the main benefits derived by management from the collective agreement is the creation of an orderly procedure within which challenges to its authority can be channeled and adjudicated. This does not detract from the employee’s right to refuse work he reasonably believes unsafe.

Arbitrator Weiler in the 1968 case U.S.W.A. v. Lake Ontario Steel Co., 19 L.A.C. 103 (Ontario Arbitration)

What is the right to refuse dangerous work all about?

Here are some important points:

  • workers must continue to be paid while a work refusal is being investigated
  • employers must ensure workers understand the hazards at the workplace, know what needs to be reported, and have the support to exercise their right
  • employers must investigate the matter in cooperation with the joint worksite health and safety committee or health and safety representative.
  • employers cannot take or threaten discriminatory action against a worker for exercising their rights and duties under the legislation
  • other workers may be assigned to perform the work if they are advised of the refusal, the reason for it, and are made aware of their own right to refuse work after the employer determines there is not a risk.
  • Your Shop Stewards and your Union Labour Relations Officer need to know about your refusal so they can stand up for you and make sure no one else is assigned the hazardous work that you refused. If you don’t know how to contact them, call 1-888-GOUNION

How it works

Workers on provincially regulated work sites have the right to refuse to carry out any work they reasonably think will put themselves, or others, in danger.

Asking a worker to work in a situation where there is a danger to health and safety is against provincial labour laws.

How to address dangerous work

If you’re being asked to do work you reasonably think could present a danger for you or another, follow these steps:

  1. Don’t do the work.
  2. Tell your employer, supervisor or another designated person as soon as possible what you’re refusing to do, and why.
  3. Contact your Shop Steward or your Union Labour Relations Officer, or call 1-888-GOUNION to inform your union of your work refusal.
  4. Your employer must investigate and take action to eliminate the danger.
  5. Unless the danger is fixed immediately, the employer must inspect and investigate the hazard with you and your union health and safety representatives.
  6. Alert your Shop Steward or Union Labour Relations Officer if your employer won’t stop work you think is dangerous. They can help you connect with the OHS Contact Centre.
  7. You are entitled to the same wages and benefits that you would have received if you had continued to work. The employer is allowed to assign alternate work to you in the meantime, providing you can reasonably do it and it’s safe.
  8. Review the written report your employer is required to give you about their investigation into the danger, and the actions they take to fix it.
  9. Alert your union Shop Steward or Labour Relations Officer if you think your employer hasn’t corrected the situation. They can help you file grievances if necessary and follow up with the OHS Contact Centre for further assistance.

The above information is adapted from