Alberta workers would be given the right to refuse unsafe work without facing reprisals — such as loss of pay or termination — under a new bill that proposes a major overhaul to workers compensation and workplace safety rules.

The current legislation gives workers the "duty" to refuse. Changing it to a "right" would take the onus off workers and place responsibility to fix the situation on employers. They wouldn't be able to assign the same task to another worker. 

Bill 30, An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans, was introduced Monday in the Alberta legislature.

The proposed changes adjust a system some argue has been tipped in favour of employers for too long.

"We are going to be starting conversations about health and safety at workplaces across this province that may not have had them before," said Labour Minister Christina Gray. "And I think that is going to be incredibly positive for our province."

Other changes outlined in Bill 30 include:

  • An end to the $98,700 cap on insurable earnings for workers compensation benefits. That means people who earn more than that amount would receive benefits based on their current income.
  • Workers would still get paid even if a stop work order is imposed on their worksite. The government hopes this would encourage more people to report unsafe conditions.
  • Employers and supervisors would be required to take measures to prevent harassment and violence in the workplace. Workers would be prohibited from engaging in harassing, bullying or violent behaviour.
  • Spouses of workers killed on the job would be treated equally. All would receive benefits for five years. Spouses with children would receive benefits until the youngest child is 18, or 25, if that child is in college or university.
  • The government would create an independent Fair Practices Office to guide injured workers through the WCB system and provide support.
  • Larger workplaces, those with 20 or more workers, would have to create a joint work health and safety committee. Sites with five to 19 workers would need to designate a health and safety representative. These provisions apply to projects lasting 90 days or more. Alberta would be the last province to make these committees mandatory
  • Workplaces would have to report "near-miss' incidents that could have killed or seriously injured someone.

The government estimates changes to the WCB would cost an additional $94 million a year.

Gray said the WCB plans to use a portion of the accident fund surplus, which is generated through investment income, to cover these costs next year.

Any decisions about future increases to premiums will be made by the WCB board. 

"We've rejected the idea (from the review panel) that government will tell the WCB how to manage any surpluses in the future," Gray said. "So we've left that responsibility with the WCB.

"They will be reviewing their policies and will determine how those funds potentially can be used to the benefit for both workers and employers." 

 A spokesperson for the United Conservative Party said caucus would provide reaction after they've had a chance to review the bill and talk to constituents and stakeholders. 

The Occupational Health and Safety Act hasn't undergone substantial change since it was passed in 1976. The Workers' Compensation Act hasn't been reviewed in more than 15 years.

If passed, most changes to OHS would come into effect on June 1, 2018.

Most of the WCB side of the legislation would become law on Jan. 1, 2018. The government wants to have the Fair Practices Office running by Dec. 1, 2018.

Changes to the WCB followed a review by an independent panel.