Right to Refuse Work: COVID-19

If a teacher is not satisfied with the health and safety of the work environment, they need to communicate this concern to their principal promptly so action can be taken to remedy any hazardous condition in a timely manner.  OHS allows workers to refuse to work or to do particular work at a worksite if the worker believes on reasonable grounds that there is a dangerous condition at the work site or that the work constitutes a danger to the worker’s health and safety or to the health and safety of another worker or another person. (2020 03 31)

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Other Notes regarding OHS and COVID-19

Section 3 of the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act obliges the employer to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the teachers and other workers in the school, as well as other persons who may be affected by hazards from the school. 

Assessing and controlling hazards is part of providing and maintaining a healthy and safe work environment.  Under Part 2 Section 7 of the OHS Code, employers are required to assess and identify existing and potential hazards and report how these hazards will be controlled to the lowest level possible or eliminated.  This assessment needs to be repeated at reasonably practicable intervals, or when a work process or operation is new or changes. Hazard assessments should be updated to include extra controls put in place to manage the risks associated with COVID-19. The cleanliness and hygiene of the school is important for a healthy and safe work environment.

According to the Scenario 1 guidance document, school procedures must include:

  • Hand sanitizer placed in “entrances, exits and near high-touch equipment such as microwave ovens and vending machines and other high traffic areas.”  
  • “increased frequency of cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas and equipment inside and outside classrooms.” 
  •  “proper hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette”
  • “students and staff will be required to perform proper hand hygiene when entering and exiting” the school and classroom. 

These expectations should be included in the school re-entry plan and could be identified in hazard assessments as controls put in place to limit the hazard.

Prior to returning to school in the fall, teachers need to be aware of the plans from their school division for re-entry.  These are specific to school divisions as they consider the division’s resources, buildings, student count, number of teachers, etc.  

Review the updated hazard assessment for the school and how the hazards associated with COVID-19 are to be controlled or eliminated, the school division re-entry plan and your teaching schedule and location.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act states the following:

31(1) Subject to this section and section 5 [of the OHS Act], a worker may refuse to work or to do particular work at a worksite if the worker believes on reasonable grounds that there is a dangerous condition at the work site or that the work constitutes a danger to the worker’s health and safety or to the health and safety of another worker or another person.

This language was changed in 2018 – it used to specify having the right to refuse work where there was an imminent threat/danger.

A teacher who is exercising their right to refuse work needs to communicate this to their employer or supervisor promptly.   There can be many different reasons for work to be dangerous including hazards not being adequately controlled and specific medical considerations.  If there are medical reasons that exacerbate the hazard, be prepared to provide a medical certificate from a doctor.  Medical certificates should contain information related to the need for an accommodation or a sick leave, but not a diagnosis.  A work refusal triggers an investigation that, when safe to do so, ought to involve the worker.



OHS Act, Regulation and Code

Government of Alberta guidelines – COVID-19