If a teacher is not satisfied with the health and safety of the work environment, they need to communicate this concern to their principal promptly so action can be taken to remedy any hazardous condition in a timely manner. Under OHS legislation, workers have the right to refuse dangerous work. Effective 2021 12 01, the right to refuse dangerous work requires the presence of an “undue hazard” at the worksite, whereby the undue hazard poses “a serious and immediate threat to the health and safety of a person.”
OHS resources, available on the Government of Alberta website, emphasize ensuring that the steps for work refusal include communicating health and safety concerns to the supervisor.
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Other Notes regarding OHS and COVID-19
Section 3 of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act obliges the employer to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the teachers and other workers in the school, as well as other persons who may be affected by hazards from the school.
Assessing and controlling hazards is part of providing and maintaining a healthy and safe work environment. Under Part 2 Section 7 of the OHS Code, employers are required to assess and identify existing and potential hazards and report how these hazards will be controlled to the lowest level possible or eliminated. This assessment needs to be repeated at reasonably practicable intervals, or when a work process or operation is new or changes. Hazard assessments should be updated to include extra controls put in place to manage the risks associated with COVID-19. The cleanliness and hygiene of the school is important for a healthy and safe work environment.
Examples of school procedures to control the hazards associated with COVID-19 and other respiratory infections include:
- Hand sanitizer placed in entrances to classrooms, at exits, and close to high-touch equipment or surfaces
- High frequency of cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas and equipment in the schools
- Wearing masks while in the school
- Recommending vaccinations
- Daily self-assessments of symptoms by staff and students before reporting to school
- Promotion and requirement of proper hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette when entering and exiting classrooms and school buildings
Procedures and expectations should be included in the school re-entry plan and could be identified in hazard assessments as controls put in place to limit hazards.
Prior to returning to school in the fall, teachers need to be aware of the plans from their school division for re-entry. These are specific to school divisions as they consider the division’s resources, buildings, student count, number of teachers, etc. While the Chief Medical Officer of Health establishes requirements, school divisions can choose to add additional measures for safety for the context of their school communities and needs.
Review the updated hazard assessment for the school and how the hazards associated with COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses are to be controlled or eliminated, the school division re-entry plan and your teaching schedule and location.
Until 2021 11 30, the Occupational Health and Safety Act stated the following:
31(1) Subject to this section and section 5 [of the OHS Act], a worker may refuse to work or to do particular work at a worksite if the worker believes on reasonable grounds that there is a dangerous condition at the work site or that the work constitutes a danger to the worker’s health and safety or to the health and safety of another worker or another person.
Effective 2021 12 01, the language for refusing dangerous work now requires the presence of an “undue hazard”:
17(1) In this section, “undue hazard” in relation to any occupation includes a hazard that poses a serious and immediate threat to the health and safety of a person.
(2) Subject to this section and section 5, a worker may refuse to work or to do particular work at a work site if the worker believes on reasonable grounds that there is an undue hazard at the work site or that the work constitutes an undue hazard to the worker’s health and safety or to the health and safety of another worker or another person.
While the legislation still states that a worker can refuse to do work at a particular worksite, it is now based on reasonable grounds that a “serious and immediate threat” to health and safety is present, rather than a dangerous condition.
A teacher who is exercising their right to refuse work needs to communicate this to their employer or supervisor promptly. It is important that teachers are aware of the hazards at their school, as well as the controls in place to limit those hazards. There can be many different reasons for work to be dangerous including hazards not being adequately controlled and specific medical considerations. If there are medical reasons that exacerbate the hazard, be prepared to provide a medical certificate from a doctor. Medical certificates should contain information related to the need for an accommodation or a sick leave, but not a diagnosis. A work refusal triggers an investigation that, when safe to do so, ought to involve the worker. Teachers need to be aware that even when exercising their right to refuse dangerous work, they may still be required to be present at the worksite and may be reassigned to another task. It is important that teachers know what the hazard assessments indicate for hazards, as well the controls in place, and provide timely input on health and safety concerns to the principal. OHS, and the internal responsibility system within the legislation, require where possible, that these steps be followed as a part of the process prior to refusing dangerous work.