Editor’s note: This story was edited to remove incorrect information provided by the provincial government. In fact, workers do have the right to refuse unsafe work in B.C.
Workers would have the right to refuse dangerous work under new job site rules proposed by the Alberta government.
Labour Minister Christina Gray introduced changes to workplace health and safety provisions and to workers’ compensation in a bill tabled Monday.
“Every year, hard-working Albertans are killed or injured on the job,” Gray told the house. “These incidents don’t just affect the workers involved, they affect families, communities, friends, co-workers and employers.
“They can be prevented with proper precautions, public awareness, training and effective enforcement of legislation.”
The bill proposes employees get more say on the health and safety of their workplace and more rights into how their claims are handled should they be injured.
It follows a lengthy review of workplace rules. Workers’ compensation had not been reviewed for 15 years, while occupational health and safety provisions had not been looked at since they were enacted in 1976.
Under the changes, a worker who refused dangerous work would continue to be paid while that refusal was investigated.
Currently, rules in Alberta stipulate that workers must “refuse and report work that might put you or other workers into imminent danger.” Alberta Labour defines imminent danger as “a danger that’s not normal for that job” or “a danger under which a person engaged in that job would not normally carry out.”
The president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees was quick to endorse Gray’s proposed legislation.
“This positive enhancement to the Occupational Health and Safety Act is long overdue and will allow employees more say in their safety on the job, which could help save lives,” Guy Smith said in a news release.
In terms of the bill’s right-to-refuse unsafe work provision, Smith said he believes the government is shifting away from the focus on “imminent danger” and that the change in approach is significant.
“Before, workers had the right to refuse work when they were in ‘imminent danger’ and I think now, those rights have been expanded,” he told Global News. “I think it broadens that definition somewhat, and there’s also the expansion of the workers’ rights to not face any discipline or any discrimination from an employer when they do legitimately raise concerns of unsafe work.
“It may be work that’s not safe but they’re not actually in imminent danger,” Smith added. “It is similar to what was there in the past, but the definition is broader now so that employees have the ability to make those determinations themselves, to protect not only their own health and safety but those around them as well.”
One amendment would affect employers who are already barred from taking discriminatory action against workers who exercise their rights. The law would take that one step further and ban them from even threatening punitive action.
Another change proposes the family of a worker killed on the job receive a lump-sum payment of $90,000.
There would also be no cap on benefits paid to injured workers. Right now, anyone hurt on the job is paid up to a maximum of 90 per cent of net earnings totalling $98,700 a year.
The bill also mandates the creation of health and safety committees for workplaces with 20 or more employees. The committees would inspect sites for hazards and help resolve disputes and workplace health and safety concerns.
There are also to be new rules clarifying workplace violence and harassment and outlining what supervisors must do to prevent such behaviour.
Employers would also have to report, not only workplace injuries, but also “near miss” incidents with the potential to cause injury.
Proposed changes to workers’ compensation rules would allow injured workers to initiate dispute resolution by a medical panel if doctors disagreed about a claim and would give greater choice of health providers in a case.
An independent office is to be established to help people navigate the system.
The Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) provides compensation for people hurt on the job and helps them recover. It’s funded by premiums paid by employers.
The province estimates the changes will cost an extra $94 million a year, but notes the board’s revenue this year is pegged at $1 billion.
As of 2016, there was another $10.5 billion in the board’s reserve fund.
“Significant changes to WCB within the bill will see the board have less absolute power over injured workers,” Smith said. “Employees’ claims will now be received with more conviction by the board and when all things are equal, resolve will be in favour of the worker.”
If the bill is passed, the changes will kick in throughout 2018.
-With files from Global’s Phil Heidenreich