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New OH&S rules affect teachers


February 23, 2021 Konni deGoeij, ATA Associate Co-ordinator Administrator Assistance

New occupational health and safety (OHS) laws came into effect on June 1, 2018, with the first significant updates in more than 40 years. The purposes of the new laws are the promotion and maintenance of the following:

  • the highest degree of physical, psychological and social well-being of workers;
  • the prevention of work site incidents, injuries, illnesses and diseases;
  • the protection of workers from factors and conditions adverse to their health and safety; and
  • ensuring that all workers have three basic rights: the right to know, the right to participate and the right to refuse dangerous work.

The following Q&A explores the aspects of the changes that most affect teachers.

What are the changes to the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act that I should be aware of as a teacher?

For teachers, one of the most significant changes to the act was the addition of psychological and social well-being of workers. This encompasses part 27 of the Occupational Health and Safety Code, which identifies violence and harassment as workplace hazards, where a “hazard” means a situation, condition or thing that may be dangerous to health and safety.

Employers are required to help prevent workplace harassment and violence and address incidents when they do occur. The new rules define workplace harassment and violence in all forms. They also require employers to

  • investigate incidents of violence and harassment and take corrective action,
  • develop separate violence and harassment prevention plans,
  • review plans every three years, and
  • advise workers of treatment options if harmed by violence or harassment.

Workers are entitled to wages and benefits while attending treatment programs.

What are the changes to the requirements for OHS health and safety committees (HSC) and their representatives?

One of the main changes is a move to employer-based committees rather than site-based. For example, under the new rules, each school division will have a single committee rather than a committee at each school.

The committee’s purpose is to address health and safety concerns in the workplace. The role of the committee and representatives is to advise and assist, not assume managerial responsibilities. The committee must have at least four members, with at least half representing the workers. Worker representatives are selected by the workers for a term of not less than one year, unless prescribed by a union agreement. The employer representatives are assigned by the employer. Each committee must have two co-chairs — a worker co-chair chosen by worker members and an employer co-chair chosen by employer members.

A HSC manual has been developed and suggests that the HSC representatives do have a role to play and should be available and in dialogue with workers.

Attributes of an effective HSC member/HS representative:

  • Always be ready to listen to the concerns of other workers.
  • Be sure you use safe work practices yourself, and follow all safety rules.
  • Ensure that all unsafe equipment and conditions identified are addressed appropriately.
  • Do not give up on any concern that is unresolved.
  • Do not become involved in matters that are not health and safety concerns.
  • Do not exceed your authority.
  • Do not interfere with equipment controls.
  • Get help in situations you don’t understand.

What are the hazard reporting requirements under the OHS Act?

The purpose of the hazard assessment is to identify and evaluate those conditions that could lead to employees getting hurt or becoming ill. The typical question to ask is “What could go wrong?” A hazard assessment takes into account the hazards specific to the work task being done. It also takes into account the potential for hazards at the work site to affect the employee performing the task.

Employers must prepare a report that provides the results of the hazard assessment and specifies the methods that will be used to control or eliminate the hazards. The code also requires employers to eliminate hazards whenever it is reasonably practicable to do so. If elimination is not reasonably practicable, hazards must be controlled first by using engineering controls, then administrative controls, and as a last option, by using personal protective equipment.

Your school division will have policies in place for reporting injuries and incidents at your school site. It is important that injuries and incidents are reported promptly to the division because the employer has responsibilities to report the injury or incident to OHS. Employers must report to Alberta Labour any injuries that result in a worker being admitted to hospital. This replaces the previous threshold that required reporting when two days of hospitalization had taken place.

When assessing a work site, an employer needs to assess whether a hazard is significant and whether satisfactory precautions have been taken so that the chances of worker injury are eliminated or made extremely unlikely. An employer must be able to demonstrate that all existing and potential hazards have been identified. The hazard assessment need only include those hazards that apply, or are reasonably likely to apply, to the employer’s operations.

I encourage teachers to review their board’s policy of administrative procedure and to familiarize themselves with the work of their board’s OHS Joint Work Site Health and Safety Committee.

How can a worker refuse dangerous work under the OHS Act?

The changes to the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act require the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, psychological and social well-being of workers. Further, in part four of the revised act, a worker has the right to refuse work if, on reasonable grounds, the worker believes a dangerous condition exists at the work site or the work constitutes a danger to health and safety.

If such is the case, the worker must promptly report a refusal and the reasons to the employer, supervisor or designate, and the employer must, when safe to do so, investigate and where identified remedy the dangerous condition. As part of this investigation, the hazard assessments conducted to identify and evaluate those conditions that could lead to employees getting hurt or becoming ill would be reviewed. The employer may assign another worker to the work, but that worker must first be advised

  • that the work was refused and the reason for it,
  • of the reason why the employer believes the work and/or conditions are not dangerous, and
  • that they have a right to refuse the work themselves.

You will appreciate that the application of this section of the OHS Act is complex and nuanced. If you have questions or concerns, please call the Association offices in Edmonton (1-800-232-7208) or Calgary (1-800-332-1280) for advice. My colleagues in Teacher Employment Services will be pleased to assist. ❚

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