Saskatchewan

Sask. employees can refuse to do unsafe or 'scary' work during pandemic

Business closures and mandated restrictions have ramped up in Saskatchewan, but there are still many workplaces open for business. What can an employee do if they feel unsafe?

Employment act can protect local workers who raise safety concerns

A Saskatchewan labour expert says employees do have a right to refuse 'unsafe' work, and that there are actions they can take in their workplace. (CBC)

An employee at a Regina medical diagnostic imaging clinic says her concerns about workplace safety amid COVID-19 were "dismissed."

"We have rights to be safe in the workplace," said the woman, who was granted confidentiality by CBC because she fears she'd lose her job for speaking out.

The woman said she asked about ordering personal protective equipment (PPE) — masks, gloves, eye protection and gowns — before the first COVID-19 case hit the city. 

She said it's impossible to work without touching the clients, as employees have to position them. PPE would give them a "fighting chance" to avoid catching the virus, or spreading it to clients, she said. But the response was allegedly lukewarm. 

"They were just convinced that the chances of COVID-19 coming to Regina were just so low." 

She said the clinic was also slow to turn away patients who had returned from travel within 14 days of their appointment, waiting until after provincial guidelines were released. She said the workplace felt "scary" at that point, and although protocol has tightened since then, it still doesn't feel like enough. 

"It's very disheartening to us, because we're the ones constantly exposing ourselves and don't have the tools to do our jobs."

The woman (not pictured) said the clinic should be temporarily closed if workers, like her, feel unsafe. The PPE that they do have could then be donated to a hospital. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

She said she tried to contact Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) multiple times, but the line was "backlogged," so she didn't connect with anyone. At this time, the government has not hired or brought in any additional resources to help with OHS calls. 

The woman has now taken an unpaid leave.

Is there a right to refuse?

Saskatchewan employees do have a right to safety in the workplace. They can refuse to do a job or a task that they have reasonable grounds to believe is unusually dangerous.

A worker may refuse to perform any particular act or series of acts at a place of employment if the worker has reasonable grounds to believe that the act or series of acts is unusually dangerous to the worker's health or safety or that of another person, according to the Saskatchewan Employment Act. 

Scott Walsworth, who is an associate professor of labour relations at the University of Saskatchewan and a practicing labour arbitrator, said workers in the province who feel unsafe can escalate the situation to Occupational Health and Safety. (Government of Alberta)

Concerns should first be raised with a supervisor or an occupational safety committee, and if they remain unaddressed they can be escalated to the Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety OHS Division. 

The government has dedicated a specific webpage to employees with additional questions about COVID-19. 

Not all workplaces have provincial direction

Saskatchewan has enforced a long list of restrictions on workplaces, mandating closures. 

However, many workplaces remain in flux, as there's not been provincial mandates for industries like hotels. 

"I have some grave concerns about working in the hotel with this [pandemic] going on," said Karen Thibodeau, who is a front desk receptionist at Motel 6 in Swift Current. 

"It was making me feel very uneasy."  

Thibodeau said she felt concerned about traffic in the confined space of the hotel reception area. She said it was impossible to check people in while staying a safe distance apart.

"I don't want to put myself in danger for the small amount of money I make there: $12.50 an hour," she said, noting that last week she served people from Quebec and California.

On Sunday and Monday she inquired about staying home and said she received mixed messages. One message to staff said, "not coming to work out of fear is understandable. But you will not be eligible for EI unfortunately based on that." 

"I'm not saying it's a bad hotel," Thibodeau said. "I'd like everybody to be safe and to have the hotel temporarily closed."

Thibodeau was then told her shifts would be covered, but throughout the situation she said she was unclear about what her rights were. 

A spokesperson said the Ministry of Health "has not been asked to provide guidance to the Saskatchewan Hotels and Hospitality Association (SHHA) regarding public health measures during a pandemic.  However, the Ministry has been in communication with the SHHA regarding emergency preparedness." 

Premier expects employers to be safe

"All workplaces and organizations should be implementing their business continuity plans or assessing the risk of exposure and transmission for their staff and clients and make operational decisions accordingly," a government spokesperson said.

Scott Moe, premier of Saskatchewan, and Saqib Shahab, chief medical health officer, arrive to a COVID-19 news update at the Legislative Building in Regina on Wednesday March 18, 2020. Saskatchewan declared a provincial state of emergency Wednesday as the number of COVID-19 cases in the province doubled to 16. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Bell (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Premier Scott Moe was asked Monday what employees who feel unsafe should do.

"It's my true hope that all businesses are doing everything they can to provide the opportunity for social distancing," he said. 

"It's incumbent on each of us as individuals to have that discussion."

He added that further restrictions would likely come as cases of COVID-19 in the province keep increasing. 

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story indicated that employees could refuse to work in unsafe conditions, and that unsafe work is "understood as a significant departure from the usual or assumed level of risk in the position." The story has been clarified to say that "a worker may refuse to perform any particular act or series of acts at a place of employment if the worker has reasonable grounds to believe that the act or series of acts is unusually dangerous to the worker’s health or safety or that of another person."
    Mar 25, 2020 2:19 PM CT