Under health and safety legislation, employees have the right to refuse unsafe work. Unsafe work includes many aspects of the workplace, such as equipment, building structure, any dangers not typical to the job, and workplace violence. If the requirement of working with another individual will likely expose a worker to workplace violence, then the worker has the right to refuse. Workplace violence may include physical acts, verbal threats, intimidation that can be interpreted as a threat, and/or harassment.
When a worker makes a work refusal on the basis of violence, just as any unsafe work refusal, the employer (a manager/supervisor) must investigate. Upon completion, the employer will then determine if a danger exists, and if so, a remedy to correct the unsafe work condition. In the case of violence, this may include changing whom the employee works with, reports to or any other measure to eliminate the chances of violence occurring. If the worker is not satisfied after the completion of the investigation, a Minister from the Labour Board will then investigate and the orders given to correct any danger must be complied with by the employer.
This is illustrated in the case of Karn v. Canada – Attorney General (Federal Court 2017). Ms. Karn refused to work, alleging abusive behaviour from her supervisor. After an investigation by the employer failed to rectify the situation, this triggered an investigation from a Minster. The Minister concluded that a danger exists and ordered that it be rectified. This was challenged in Federal Court when the Regional Director (employer) failed to abide by the MInister’s conclusions.
The court here verified a few key factors in unsafe work refusals pertaining to violence. The court maintained that Occupational Health and Safety legislation is the proper avenue to take when facing the possibility of violence in the workplace, with the right to refuse unsafe work available to workers in such situations. Secondly, the court maintained that the Minister’s ruling is to stand, and must be given deference because Ministers of Labour are viewed as experts in applying health and safety legislation and issuing remedies to correct unsafe conditions. If an employee refuses work due to potential violence, the unsafe work refusal must be taken seriously. Workers cannot face reprisal for work refusals made in good faith.