The right to refuse unsafe work is one of the three basic health and safety rights achieved by the labour movement, along with the right to know about the hazards in your workplace, and the right to participate in workplace health and safety decisions. And while procedures and circumstances around the right to refuse may vary from province to province, just about all workers have the legal right to a healthy and safe workplace that allows (and in some provinces obligates) them to protect their own safety by refusing to perform work that they believe has the potential to harm themselves or others at the worksite.

How can I refuse unsafe work?

Exercising the right to refuse typically involves setting in motion a series of steps to resolve the unsafe or dangerous situation. While these steps vary slightly by jurisdiction, the following is a typical work refusal procedure:

  • Workers must report to their supervisor that they are refusing to perform work because they believe it is unsafe, and state why they believe the situation is unsafe
  • if the situation isn’t immediately corrected, the worker, supervisor, and a JHSC member or worker representative investigates
  • the worker can resume their work if the unsafe condition is resolved with mutual agreement
  • if the condition is not resolved, a government health and safety inspector is called to investigate and provide a decision in writing
  • no other worker should be assigned to do the work unless they have been informed of the work refusal and the reasons for the refusal

Listed below are selected sections of legislation which refer to the “right to refuse” work in each jurisdiction.  

British Columbia

Workers’ Compensation Act, Occupational Health and Safety Regulation – Section 3.12 and 3.13

Alberta

Occupational Health and Safety Act, Sections 35 and 36

Saskatchewan

Occupational Health and Safety Act,  Section 3-31

Manitoba

Workplace Safety and Health Act, Sections 42 and 43

Ontario

Occupational Health and Safety Act, Sections 43 to 50

Quebec

Act Respecting Occupational Health and Safety, Sections 12 to 31

New Brunswick

Occupational Health and Safety Act, Sections 19 to 23

Nova Scotia

Occupational Health and Safety Act, Sections 43 to 45

Newfoundland and Labrador

Occupational Health and Safety Act, Sections 45 to 49

Prince Edward Island

Occupational Health and Safety Act, Sections 28 to 31

Canada

Canada Labour Code, Part II, Sections 128 to 131


Can I be disciplined or fired for refusing to work or raising concerns?

You cannot be disciplined for complying with the legislation, and there are provisions in the law to protect you from reprisals.

If your employer or supervisor takes actions, makes remarks, or implies that you will be disciplined for refusing unsafe work, contact your union immediately.

Who can help?

CUPE members with a safety concern should speak to their union steward and/or a worker member of their joint health and safety committee. In addition, some collective agreements may specify additional protections for certain situations, including work refusals. 

CUPE staff, including a network of regional health and safety staff representatives can also provide assistance.

For more information contact:

CUPE National Health and Safety Branch
1375 St-Laurent Boulevard
OTTAWA, ON K1G OZ7

Tel: (613) 237-1590
Fax: (613) 237-5508
Email: health_safety@cupe.ca

Additional information
CUPE has right to refuse cards that can be ordered online. See a complete list of all CUPE resource materials available for ordering