Workplace safety has been a growing concern, particularly as new considerations related to the pandemic arose in 2020. A recent article in the Calgary Herald pointed to research conducted by York University which found that migrant workers in Alberta’s meatpacking plants are regularly facing dangerous conditions in the workplace.

Not only is the industry one with a high rate of worker injury, but it also has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Meatpacking sites involve close working conditions that don’t allow for the same safety precautions taken in other workplaces. There have been five deaths in just two plants in the province related to COVID-19. The issue is exacerbated by the fact that many workers in the industry are temporary foreign workers and fear reprisal (such as deportation) if they report unsafe conditions to the authorities.

In an attempt to improve workplace safety in Alberta, the province introduced several changes to health and safety regulations in 2020. These changes, set out in the Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, became law on December 1. Below, we outline some of the critical changes employers and employees should be aware of and how they impact workplace safety and the right to refuse unsafe work in Alberta.

Changes to the Administration and Management of Workplace Safety

The requirements for Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSCs) have been altered significantly under the new amendments to simplify the regime for employers across the province. The regulations governing the creation and oversight of workplace JHSCs have moved from the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act to the Occupational Health and Safety Code. In addition, the regulations now clarify that volunteers are excluded from a workplace’s employee count for JHSC requirements.

Further, the JHSC mandate has been eliminated for work sites with multiple employers overseen by a primary contractor. Instead, the primary contractor will be required to supervise the establishment of health and safety policies and coordinate health and safety issues between the various employers on a worksite.

The mandatory requirements for health and safety training have largely been eliminated. However, employers with 20 or more employees must still have a “co-ordinated system of procedures, processes and other measures that is designed to be implemented by organizations in order to promote continuous improvement in occupational health and safety.” Employers now have more control over the content of the health and safety training provided to their employees and members of their JHSCs.

Lastly, self-employed people are considered employers for the purposes of workplace safety laws and will face similar obligations.

Changes to Workplace Safety Reporting Requirements and Work Refusals

Expanded Reporting Mandates

Under the previous legislation, only serious injuries and incidents were required to be reported. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, illnesses must now be reported. The changes also include mandatory reporting for incidents of radiation exposure.

Previously, incidents or injuries resulting in an employee’s hospitalization (pursuant to a doctor’s orders) were required to be reported. Under the new amendments, a report must be filed for any incident where there is reason to believe an employee will be admitted to the hospital.

Limitations to the Right to Refuse Unsafe Work

The conditions in which an employee can refuse unsafe work have also been updated. Previously, employees could refuse any work that posed a danger to the employee’s health and safety or where there was a “dangerous condition at the work site.” Under the revised legislation, employees may only refuse work that poses a “serious and immediate threat” to a person’s health and safety.

Changes to Workplace Safety Disciplinary Action Complaints

Worker complaints alleging disciplinary action or reprisal by their employer for the worker’s compliance, enforcement, or adherence to occupational health and safety requirements are now called “disciplinary action complaints.” Previously, these complaints were referred to as “discriminatory action complaints.” This change in language aims to avoid confusion with complaints under federal or provincial human rights laws.

In cases where Occupational Health and Safety Officers believe that a disciplinary action complaint is without merit, the officer(s) will have the right to refuse to investigate. Additionally, employees bound by a collective agreement must make such complaints through their designated grievance process. OHS Officers are now required to refuse investigation of any complaint relating to an employee whose employment is governed by a collective agreement.

Lastly, employees now have 180 days from the date of an incident to file a disciplinary action complaint.

Contact the Experienced Workplace Safety Lawyers at DBH Law in Calgary

The recent changes will have a broad impact on both employers and employees regarding workplace safety, the refusal of unsafe work, and the reporting of injuries, illnesses, or incidents at the workplace. It is essential to understand your rights and responsibilities to ensure compliance with the amended legislation and avoid missing limitation periods when an injury or illness occurs.

If you are an employer or employee and have questions about workplace health and safety or refusing unsafe work, contact the experienced employment lawyers at DBH Law in Calgary. We rely on our many years of experience advising workplace parties across all sectors and industries to provide our clients with responsive and concise legal advice they can trust. To find out how we can help you, contact us by phone at 403-252-9937 or reach out online.