Understanding Canada's 3 worker rights to ensure workplace safety

Learn more about the three worker rights under Canadian OHS laws and how they relate to health and safety training in the workplace

Understanding Canada's 3 worker rights to ensure workplace safety
The three worker rights in Canada are important aspects of occupational health and safety

Across the globe, the rights of workers have always been at the centre of conversations on economics and productivity.

Part of these ongoing discussions is the workers’ right to a safe and healthy workplace. Under Canada’s laws, this right has been expanded to include the 3 basic worker rights.

But what are these 3 basic worker rights? How important are they? How do these worker rights fit into health and safety training conducted by professionals?

This article will discuss these questions, including ways that these rights can be exercised by employees in their own workplaces.

This article can also be used by health and safety trainers when educating clients about the basic three worker rights in Canada.

What are the three rights of workers?

The three basic rights of employees in Canada are:

  • Right to know: the right to be informed of the health and safety hazards that are present in the workplace, and the ways to address them
  • Right to participate: this includes the right to make suggestions and recommendations on health and safety in the workplace
  • Right to refuse: the right to refuse a dangerous or unsafe work or workplace, subject to certain conditions and exceptions

These three worker rights have their legal basis in federal and provincial laws.

All workers and employees in Canada are entitled to these rights, regardless of sector, employer, and nature of work.

Which Canadian laws protect these worker rights?

The Canadian laws that establish the three basic worker rights can be divided according to their application:

  • Federal laws: Canada Labour Code and its related Regulations, which apply to federal workers and those who are employed by federally regulated workplaces
  • Provincial and territorial laws: the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS Act) or other similar laws of each province and territory, which apply to all other employees and workplaces

Canada Labour Code

The Canada Labour Code is the federal law that defines the rights and responsibilities of federal workers, including their employers.

It also sets out the federal labour law and the 3 worker rights of federal employees. The Code is implemented by the Employment and Social Development Canada.

Aside from outlining occupational health and safety (OHS) standards in federally regulated workplaces, there are other areas that the Code covers.

For this, the Code is divided into four parts:

  • Industrial Relations (Part I): covers the collective bargaining process and the relationship between employers and the workers’ union of the workplace
  • Occupational Health and Safety (Part II): outlines the responsibilities of employers and their health and safety officers/committees in preventing work-related accidents and illnesses
  • Standard Hours, Wages, Vacations and Holidays (Part III): states the minimum labour standards and other conditions of employment
  • Administrative Monetary Penalties (Part IV): establishes the new system for imposing administrative penalties to violators of the Code, including the process of review and appeal

Application of the Code

The Code applies to these industries:

  • transportation: air transportation, marine shipping, port services, railways, land transportation
  • telecommunications: radio and tv broadcasting, telephone, internet, cable systems
  • energy: uranium mining, atomic energy
  • finance: banks (both foreign authorized and domestic)
  • agriculture: mills, warehouses, plants
  • Indigenous: First Nations Band Councils
  • public service: Crown corporations, Parliament

Occupational Health and Safety Act

Each province and territory in Canada have its own OHS Act or Regulation, which includes the 3 basic worker rights. Most of these laws would have similar provisions.

These provincial/territorial OHS legislations apply to most workplaces, except for private homes and farm operations.

These OHS legislations are enforced by the provincial/territorial Ministry of Labour, WCBs, or other specified government agency.

For example, Alberta’s OHS legislation – along with its Regulation and recently amended Code – is implemented by Alberta Labour and the Alberta WCB, among other related agencies.

What is the right to know?

One of the 3 worker rights in Canada is the right to know. It ensures that workers and employees are:

  • informed of the known or possible hazards in the workplace
  • educated and trained to protect their health and safety in the workplace

These may pertain to:

  • trainings on how to properly handle equipment and machinery
  • guidelines on how to report dangerous or sub-standard working conditions
  • policies and codes required by the employer and the provincial/territorial OHS legislations
  • procedures on what to do when a workplace injury or fatality happens

Safety training courses

Essential to the workers’ right to know are the safety training courses, as required by the OHS laws of Canada.

These safety training courses may be delivered by someone in the workplace, in line with the workplace’s internal responsibility system (IRS).

These may also be provided by external bodies and agencies. What’s important is that these external training providers meet the standards of that workplace and the needs of its employees.

Adrien LeBlanc, General Manager and Principal Safety Advisor of SafestWork Consulting, expounds on the work that they do as a health and safety training provider. “Health and safety training, where somebody’s life is on the line, is not the place to get a participation trophy,” says LeBlanc, a winner of Canadian Occupational Safety’s 5-Star Safety and Training awards. “As a former inspector and program coordinator, I help ensure that the content of the training programs is vetted for accuracy and relevance to provincial legislation,” LeBlanc adds.

This video explains the required health and safety trainings for workers in Ontario:

Check out the top health and safety training companies in 2023 in our Special Report on 5-Star Safety and Training 2023.

What is the right to participate?

This right allows workers to participate in the policy-making processes of the workplace to ensure their health and safety.

It also protects the workers’ right to be active in any procedure that addresses workplace hazards.

The right to participate states that employees can:

  • participate as a member of the workplace’s health and safety committee
  • participate as a health and safety representative
  • report any health and safety concerns to the committee or representative
  • make suggestions to the committee, representative, or the employer on ways to improve the workplace’s OHS compliance

This right is also related to the workplace’s IRS. Employers and their employees are responsible for a workplace that promotes everyone’s health and safety.

What is the right to refuse?

Last of the 3 worker rights is the right to refuse any dangerous jobs or work in a hazardous environment.

This is a last resort for workers. It will only be justified when the first two rights have not been properly addressed by the employer.

This right is also a more procedural one compared to the other two. It means that there are certain conditions and processes that workers must follow for the valid exercise of this right.

Conditions for the right to refuse

Under the OHS laws of Canada – both federal and provincial/territorial – the following conditions must be present for the lawful refusal to work by an employee:

  1. If enforcing the workers’ right to know and the right to participate both fail to ensure their health and safety in the workplace
  2. If there is reasonable cause to believe that the following will endanger themselves or other workers:
    • the use of a particular machine, equipment, or device
    • the physical condition of the workplace
    • the performance of any work-related activity

Exceptions to the right to refuse work

Not all workers are given the right to refuse dangerous work, especially in industries or sectors specified under Canada’s OHS laws.

For example, under the federal Canada Labour Code, an employee cannot refuse work if:

  • the refusal will put the life, health, or safety of another person in danger
  • the danger is a normal condition of the job

Similar provisions are also found in the provincial/territorial OHS laws containing the basic worker rights.

Exempted workers

Federal and provincial/territorial OHS laws specify certain industries or sectors that cannot refuse to work based on this right.

For instance, under Ontario’s OHS Act, the following set of employees cannot refuse work:

  • police
  • firefighters
  • employees of correctional facilities or temporary detention facilities
  • employees of hospitals, mental health centres, residential group homes, ambulance service, and laboratories

This exemption is based on the following principles:

  • that the danger is part of the job
  • that the dangerous work is a normal condition of the job
  • that their refusal to work will put more lives in danger

Process in exercising the right to refuse work

There is a strict process that employees must follow to exercise their right to refuse dangerous work. This presumes that all the conditions mentioned above are met.

British Columbia’s OHS Regulations outline the following process when a worker refuses to work:

  1. Worker must report the circumstances of the unsafe condition to their supervisor or employer right away
  2. Supervisor or employer must investigate and address the unsafe condition ASAP or inform the worker that such report is not valid
  3. If the unsafe condition is still unresolved and/or if the worker still refuses to work, the supervisor or employer will investigate again, but now in the presence of:
    • the reporting worker
    • a worker member of the joint health and safety committee
    • a representative of the trade union
    • any other available worker selected by the reporting worker
  4. If the unsafe condition is still unresolved, both the worker and the employer will have to contact their provincial workers’ compensation boards or WCBs (which is WorkSafeBC in this case)

Important points to consider on the right to refuse work

As part of a safety and training course for businesses and workplaces, it’s also important that both employers and workers understand their roles when this right to refuse has been applied.

On the part of employers, they are encouraged to view the exercise of this worker’s right in good faith and without any hostility. It will also be a perfect opportunity for them to finally address workplace hazards.

On the part of the workers, if they have exercised this right according to law, they should not be sanctioned or penalized. They cannot be terminated, demoted, or harassed by the employer or their co-employees.

Workers are also entitled to their fair and regular pay during the period that the right to refuse has been exercised, until such hazard has been resolved.

What is Canada’s work safety training course?

The three worker rights are part of the safety and training courses required by law for businesses and establishments.

Through these courses, the workers’ right to be informed is satisfied. Workers are not only informed of the hazards of the workplace, but they are also taught how to minimize these hazards.

Importance of work safety trainings

The COVID-19 pandemic has called a lot attention to the field of occupational health and safety, says Henrietta Van hulle, Executive Director for Health and Community Services at the Public Services Health and Safety Association (PSHSA) in Mississauga, Ontario.

“I think that it's important for us to keep that focus up there – that health and safety is a priority, and everybody should be focusing on that,” says Van hulle.

In addition, sector-specific training and certifications have been on the rise because of the growth of certain industries.

Kate Lashbrook, Director of Client Services of Worksite Safety Compliance Centre, cited one example, due to immigration now being part of the Ministry of Labor Training and Skills Development.

“We've noticed the huge influx of newcomers to Canada, particularly entering the construction space. And we see this the most in our working at heights training in Ontario and our fall protection training out in Alberta,” Lashbrook says.

Future of work safety trainings

Moving forward, the future of work safety training in Canada is the use of online platforms by training and safety firms. “A training and safety firm today requires an online presence,” says Isaac Rudik, Company Safety Manager of HERC Rentals.

“More workers today are accessing safety information from their phone. Training and safety firms need to build safety solutions that are mobile friendly and connect to the end user through social media channels.”

As such, training and safety firms such as PSHSA and Worksite Safety are working with learning management systems (LMS). These systems help them in learning processes and other follow-ups during post-training.

Bookmark our News page to get the latest updates in the occupational health and safety sector in Canada. News on OHS violations and results of actual court cases can also be found on this page.