The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work: Fear of Violence

Under Ontario Health and Safety legislation, employees have a right to refuse work they reasonably believe to be unsafe. This includes the right to refuse unsafe work on the basis of violence. The act of violence in Ontario workplaces are defined under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which includes:

  1. An attempt to exercise physical force against a worker in a workplace that could cause physical injury to the worker; and
  2. A statement or behaviour that a worker could reasonably interpret as a threat to exercise physical force against the worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker

The source of the violence does not need to be from another worker. It may come from third parties, such as a patient or customer. Further, the threat does not need to intentionally inflict harm; there only needs to exist the possibility of physical harm. Examples of an act that can be interpreted as a threat to exercise physical force could include verbal threats to harm a worker, clenching a fist in a worker’s face, an attempt to chase down a worker with equipment (ie. a forklift), and so forth.
When a worker believes that they are faced with violence in the workplace they have the right to refuse the work as being unsafe until the threat is removed. Alternative safe work may be given between the time of the refusal and the removal of the source of violence. No worker refusing to do work that is unsafe can face reprisal under the law, which includes loss of pay (even if alternative work is unavailable), discipline, demotion and so on. Employers must insure that Workplace Health and Safety policies include violence and proper investigative and corrective procedures to ensure compliance with Health and Safety legislation, and a course of action for workers faced with such endangerment.