The Right to Refuse: Employees : NS Labour and Advanced Education, Health and Safety

If you have reasonable grounds to believe that your work is unhealthy or dangerous to yourself or anyone else at your workplace you may exercise your right to refuse work.

What does "reasonable grounds to believe" mean?

Having "reasonable grounds to believe" means that you have an honest belief that your work will cause you or someone else harm. If this is the case in your situation, you have the right to refuse work. The right to refuse may be used only where you have such reasonable grounds to believe that your work is unhealthy or dangerous to yourself or someone else. The right to refuse is only to resolve concerns and issues related to health and safety.

How do I refuse to do work that I believe is unsafe or unhealthy?

These are the steps you must follow to refuse such work:
1. Immediately report your concern to a supervisor.
2. Remain at work, but go to a safe place, away from the hazard. [You should not leave the workplace altogether without the permission of the employer (unless the entire workplace is affected i.e. bad air quality, or high noise levels, throughout).]

What happens after I refuse to do the work?

1. If, after reporting your work refusal to your supervisor, the matter is not remedied to your satisfaction, you must report it to your Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (JOHSC) / representative, or the OH&S Division of Nova Scotia Labour and Advanced Education, who will investigate your work refusal. Note: If a construction project JOHSC exists, you should follow the normal procedure for work refusals established for your company. It is not normally the role of the project committee to investigate work refusals; however, since work refusals at a project have the potential to impact health and safety at the entire project, your supervisor should notify the project committee. For more information about the role of construction project JOHSC"s during work refusals, see pp.9 and 10 of the Department"s publication Construction Project Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committees: A Practical Guide (PDF: 157k)
2. Meanwhile, your employer is allowed to re-assign you to other work.
3. You may accompany an Officer or the JOHSC on a physical inspection of the workplace in relation to the work refusal.

Also be aware that the employer has the right to give the work you have refused to another employee, provided that employee is made aware
1. of your refusal to do the work;
2. the reason for the refusal; and
3. that they also have the right to refuse the work if they have reasonable grounds to believe the work is unsafe or unhealthy.

For how long can a work refusal continue?

The Occupational Health and Safety Act does not specify a time frame for a work refusal to end. However, you may continue your work refusal until
- your employer has taken remedial action to your satisfaction;
- the JOHSC has investigated the matter and has unanimously (see explanation below) advised you to return to work; or
- an OH&S Officer has investigated and has advised you to return to work.

What does "unanimously" mean?

If all JOHSC members find that the subject work is not unsafe or unhealthy, the JOHSC will advise you to return to work. The unanimous decision to advise you to return to work must be made by all the members investigating the work refusal, and who must all agree that you should return to work. The JOHSC, as a whole, or a quorum of the committee can investigate the refusal. However, whatever the composition of the investigating group, the group must be unanimous in its decision if the committee is to advise the worker to return to work.

Will I lose wages during my work refusal?

When a work refusal is based on a reasonable belief, the law is intended to protect an employee´s wages, salary, and benefits during the period required to resolve a work refusal. When the employer does not reassign the employee to other work or does not pay the employee for the period the employee can file a discriminatory action complaint. Your employer cannot take, or threaten to take, discriminatory action against you because you have refused to do work that you believe to be unsafe or unhealthy. If a dispute arises, you may claim lost pay through a complaint of discriminatory action. See Info Sheet A-4 "Discriminatory Action".

Note: Work refusals are considered a high priority when reported to the OH&S Division. An investigation into the work refusal may take place on the same day it is reported.

How can I learn more?

To find out more about your right to refuse work, see Sections 43 and 44 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, or contact:

Nova Scotia Labour and Advanced Education
Occupational Health and Safety Division
5151 Terminal Road, 5th Floor
Halifax, Nova Scotia  B3J 2T8

Phone: (902) 424-5400 or 1-800-9LABOUR (in N.S.)
Fax: (902) 424-5640

Single copies of related publications are available from the Occupational Health and Safety Division of Nova Scotia Labour and Advanced Education at no charge.