Health and Safety At Work

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The Right to Refuse Unsafe Work

Unsafe work is work that involves an "imminent danger," which can be:

  • a danger that isn't normal for that type of work, or
  • a danger under which a worker in that type of work would not normally do the work

Workers in Alberta can refuse work which they believe puts them in imminent danger, or puts another worker at the workplace in imminent danger. The provincial government's Occupational Health and Safety Act explains this.

Domestic workers, such as nannies and housekeepers, and certain agricultural workers can't refuse unsafe work, because these workers aren't covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Workers who refuse unsafe work cannot be fired or disciplined as a result, but employers often do punish workers who report unsafe work. Workers who report unsafe works are still entitled to receive pay, but they may be assigned to do other work while the problem is being corrected.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act states that once they have been notified of unsafe work, they are obligated to ensure no other worker is assigned to perform the work unless:

  1. the worker to be assigned is not exposed to imminent danger
  2. the imminent danger has been eliminated.

The procedure to refuse unsafe work

(a) Reporting and remaining on site for the supervisor's investigation

The worker should report immediately to both the supervisor and the worker health and safety representative (if there is one) the refusal to work and the related safety concern. You should remaining on site for the shift, while taking every measure to report the refusal. This may minimize complications later in the process.

After being told about the refusal, the supervisor investigates the work, fixes it, and gives a report to the worker of what was found, and the repairs that were made.

(b) Health and safety officer's investigation

After receiving the supervisor's report, a worker who believes the work is still unsafe can file a complaint with Workplace Health and Safety at 1-866-415-8690. Workers who are deaf or have a hearing impairment can call 780-427-9999 in Edmonton, or 1-800-232-7215 from elsewhere in the province.

The worker health and safety representative should be told about the disagreement, too.

An occupational health and safety officer from Workplace Health and Safety investigates the work, makes a decision, and gives the decision in writing to the worker and the supervisor. It is expected that the supervisor has the work fixed if the officer's decision requires it, and the worker returns to work if the officer decides that the work is not unsafe.

A worker disagreeing with the officer's decision can request the Occupational Health and Safety Council to conduct a review.

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The Right to Know

Workers have the right to know about hazards and possible hazards in the workplace. Hazards can be anything from toxic chemicals in cleaning products for janitors to harassment and violent crime for retail workers. Poor lighting in offices, cold weather for workers working outside, and tools and machines in construction work are also examples of hazards in the workplace. Knowing about hazards and training to avoid hazards let workers work more safely.

Workers get to know about workplace hazards when provincial health and safety law states that employers have to tell workers about a specific hazard. Similarly, employers instruct workers in the proper way of doing work when provincial health and safety law states that the employer has to give such instruction.

Hazardous Materials

Employers have to tell workers about certain hazardous materials they may need to work with. These products are classified, or defined, under the Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS).

Compressed gas, flammable and combustible materials, oxidizing materials, poisonous and infectious materials, corrosive materials and dangerously reactive materials each come with a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which employers make available to workers. These hazardous materials, classified under WHMIS, are stored in containers with a WHMIS warning label.

Together, the WHMIS warning label and the MSDS state:

  • what the hazardous material is,
  • how it is hazardous to humans,
  • how to work safety with it, and
  • what to do in an emergency.

The MSDS gives information in greater detail than the WHMIS warning label on the container.

Employers have to give workers training in:

  • reading WHMIS labels so to be able to identify hazardous materials in the workplace and understand the hazardous effects of these materials,
  • getting ahold of the MSDS and reading the data sheet,
  • safely using hazardous materials in the workplace,
  • storing and disposing of hazardous materials,
  • knowing what to do if there's a spill, release, fire or poisoning involving a hazardous material, and
  • using protective equipment in emergencies.

Other Workplace Hazards

There are other workplace hazards which workers have the right to know about, including:

  • Safety hazards, which are present in work with machines and equipment, like chainsaws, forklift trucks, ladders and wood working machines.
  • Biological hazards which include HIV-AIDS, Hepatitis A, B and C, and rabies, which are present in work with humans who are ill, animals, birds and insects.
  • Physical hazards such as cold, humidity, heat, noise and vibration.
  • Ergonomic hazards which can cause injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome or tennis elbow, and are found in work that uses hand tools, involves pushing and pulling, lifting, shoveling, working while seated and working while standing.
  • Stress and violence in the workplace result from bullying, threatening behaviour, verbal threats, harassment and verbal abuse.

Under health and safety laws in Alberta, employers have to tell workers about specific work related hazards. As an example, employers have to tell workers who work alone, including taxi drivers, retail and food outlet workers, home care workers, workers in the logging, gas and oil industries, truck drivers, business people in transit, security guards and custodians, about the hazards of their work.

By knowing about workplace hazards, workers can make sure employers make the work safer, provide protection to workers, and give training so that workers can work with the smallest possibility of injury or illness.

Besides classified hazardous materials training, training is required for workers in certain workplaces and for workers doing certain types of work. Training is necessary for avoiding injury and illness. In Alberta, some examples of worker health and safety training required by law are training for workers whose work might involve

  • delivering first aid,
  • asbestos removal,
  • working with explosives, and
  • emergency mine rescue at surface mines.

With certain types of work, the employer has to have workers instructed in the proper way of working.

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Workers' Compensation

If you are injured at work, or are sick with a disease caused by your work, you might qualify for workers' compensation benefits. In Alberta, workers' compensation is administered by the Workers Compensation Board (WCB). It is the WCB that decides whether you qualify for compensation and what you get compensation for.

The WCB may cover:

  • Health care benefits - WCB might pay the bills for prescriptions, counselling, chiropractic appointments, dental costs, and other health care costs, like the cost of braces, crutches, and hearing aids.
  • Wage replacement benefits - When an injury or illness keeps a worker from going to work, WCB might pay the worker 90% of her or his wages in wage replacement benefits. Wage replacement benefits are paid also to a worker who goes to work, but doesn't earn as much as she or he used to earn because the work is different, or because the hours are fewer.
  • Fatality benefits - When a worker dies from an occupational disease or an injury caused by work, the worker's dependents receive compensation from WCB.

Reporting Injuries

If you are injured at work, you should get first aid and immediately report the injury to the supervisor. Next, you should see a doctor, letting the doctor know that the injury is a work injury. At workplaces without first aid, or if an injury requires it, you should immediately see a doctor of your choice. The employer organizes and pays for the travel cost to the doctor's office or hospital emergency.

When the injured worker meets with the doctor, the worker should tell the doctor how the injury is work related. By giving a detailed account of the incident, the worker can give the doctor all the facts needed to complete the medical report for WCB.

To fully describe the injury, the worker should tell the doctor not only about the main injury, but about minor ones, too. A work injury sometimes can lead to a second injury.

After an accident, an injury may not be obvious at first, as some injuries and occupational illnesses develop over time. A worker's notes on her of his minor work injuries, illnesses and accidents can be used to trace later how work may have caused or played a significant part in a more serious injury or illness.

After a work accident, whether or not you are injured or miss time from work, you should always report the accident to the employer. Within 72 hours of the accident, the employer may have to tell WCB about it.

Getting Compensation

Compensation may be paid by WCB to a worker who:

  • gets medical treatment
  • takes time off work beyond the day of the injury
  • does different or less work because of the accident or injury

If, because of your illness or injury, you:

  • need medical treatment
  • are off work beyond the day of your accident
  • have to perform different or fewer work duties
  • have a permanent injury (amputation, hearing loss, etc.)

You must complete a Worker's Report of Injury or Occupational Disease form and send it to the WCB as soon as possible. Any other information such as a list of witnesses is also useful; please include this information with your Worker's Report of Injury form. Remember to include your name, Social Insurance Number, date of birth, and your employer's name.

Questions on completing the Worker's Report of Injury or Occupational Disease can be answered by WCB. Call toll-free anywhere in Alberta 1-866- WCB-WCB1 (1-866-922-9221)

The WCB Policy and Information Manual explains workers' compensation in greater detail. A worker can have another person, like a friend, co worker, or family member fill in the Worker's Report of Injury or Occupational Disease with the worker.

After sending in the report, a worker can contact the WCB to learn whether or not she or he will get compensation.

While you are off from work because of a work injury or illness

If you miss work while recovering from a workplace injury or illness, it is important that you:

  • speak with WCB before changing doctors, since changing doctors may not be permitted
  • keep in contact with the doctor or other health care provider, attend all medical appointments and follow all medical instruction (such as exercise programs, nutrition plans, the use of medical aids, etc.)
  • talk with the doctor or other health care provider about when it is safe to return to work
  • take detailed notes on conversations with doctors and other health service providers
  • keep in contact with WCB, take detailed notes on conversations with WCB workers, especially about your return to work plan, and keep copies of letters and information that you send to WCB
  • take notes on conversations with the employer, keep records of time taken off from work
  • tell WCB about any plans to leave the province, even for a short stay, since WCB benefits might stop while an injured or ill worker is away.

After the WCB Makes a Decision

If you disagree with the decision of the WCB, you can appeal the decision and ask the WCB to change its decision or parts of its decision concerning whether or not you receive benefits, the type of benefits you receive, and the amount and length of time you receive benefits.

There are many steps to questioning a decision. The Appeals Commission can work with you on appealing a WCB decision, and the services provided by Appeals advisors are free of charge.

A worker appealing a WCB decision can get a copy of her or his WCB file by calling the Access to Information unit at WCB.

For more information regarding the WCB, contact them at:

Workers' Compensation Board of Alberta
P.O. Box 2415
Edmonton AB T5J 2S5
Tel: 780-498-3999
Toll free in Alberta: 1-866-922-9221
Claims toll free fax: 1-800-661-1993 (in Alberta)

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