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When can an employee refuse work?

A man washes windows at height. Stock photo by Getty Images.
Stock photo by Getty Images

We’re all familiar with the adage: “you’re lucky to have work in these tough times.”

However, what if there are situations in which you feel you cannot perform the work, do you actually have the right to refuse?

The answer is that in some circumstances, you do.

The right to refuse dangerous work

If you feel that the work is dangerous, and you would be put in peril if you performed certain tasks, you have the right to refuse according to the Canada Labour Code.

In Canada, the Occupational Health and Safety Act states you have the right to refuse dangerous work as long as you have reasonable cause to believe it presents a danger.

The definition of danger that applies to this refusal is:"any hazard, condition or activity that could reasonably be expected to be an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected or the activity altered."

Federal employees are covered under part II of the Code, which says they have the right to refuse to:

  • Use or operate a machine that constitutes a danger to the employee or another employee;
  • To work in a place;
  • To perform an activity that constitutes a danger to the employee or to another employee.

If you’re not a federal employee, you should be covered under provincial statutes. Every province has a workplace safety act that includes the refusal to do dangerous work.

Religious beliefs and other grounds

An employer cannot treat you unfairly due to your religious beliefs.

In fact, the employer has a “duty to accommodate” the employee based on these grounds:

  • disability;
  • race;
  • skin colour;
  • birthplace (national or ethnic origin);
  • age; 
  • gender (or gender identity);
  • family status (single parent, caregiver);
  • religious beliefs;
  • sexual orientation;
  • marital status (divorced, single);
  • conviction for which a pardon has been granted or a record suspended.

The duty to accommodate means employers have to attempt to make every effort to accommodate your individual circumstances.

Sometimes someone’s religious beliefs can clash with social norms when at work. What happens then?

In the case of S.L. v. Commission scolarie des Chenes, the Supreme Court of Canada said if a person sincerely believes doing an action is against their religion, then that triggers the protection of the legal prohibition on religious discrimination in human rights statutes. They call this the “sincerity of belief” test.

However, even sincerity of belief has to be balanced with other people’s rights not to be denied a service, especially if it’s considered an essential service.

Read more:

Manitoba: The Workplace Safety and Health Act

Alberta: Occupational Health and Safety Act