Sudbury workers education group calls for changes to workplace inspections during COVID-19

A Sudbury labour advocacy route is calling on the province to do all workplace inspections in person when an employee files a refusal to work complaint due to unsafe conditions.

Sudbury Workers Education & Advocacy Centre encouraging the public to speak up to province on issue

Workplaces have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but a Sudbury labour group says if you feel unsafe, you can take steps to address the issue. (The Associated Press)

A Sudbury labour advocacy route is calling on the province to do all workplace inspections in person when an employee files a refusal to work complaint due to unsafe conditions.

Scott Florence, the executive director of the Sudbury Workers Education & Advocacy Centre says since the COVID-19 pandemic started, some provincial inspections looking into workplace safety complaints have been conducted over the phone.

Florence says his group is looking to educate workers as restrictions start being eased in Ontario. As businesses start to reopen, the employees who work in them are heading back.

He says many people know they have the right to refuse unsafe work, but they're not sure how the process works.

"Unfortunately, if you don't do it in the correct manner you could get in trouble," he said.

"You could be seen as abandoning your job or simply refusing to work rather than refusing unsafe work."

Florence says to refuse unsafe work, you have to be physically on site.

"You can't call in from your house and say I don't think it's going to be safe, therefore I'm refusing the unsafe work," he explained.

How the process works

Florence gives the example of a retail worker being scheduled to return to work to serve customers and take payments. He says there could be cause for concern if the employee shows up and there have been no steps taken to protect the worker.

"Perhaps there's been no personal protective equipment that's been provided, there's been no measures in place to ensure that social distancing is maintained," he said.

"That would be an example of an unsafe work condition and you would absolutely have the right in that case to refuse the work."

Florence says in a case like that, the first step is to talk to your boss and health and safety representative about your concerns.

"See if the issue can be resolved," he said. "That would be step number one."

He says if your employer refuses to take action to address the raised safety concerns, the next step would be to contact the Ministry of Labour.

"That process can take some time," he said. 

'Unfair and unsafe'

He says typically, a ministry inspector would visit the workplace but he says in person inspections aren't always happening now due to COVID-19. He says instead, some inspections are being done over the phone.

Florence says that is a problem.

"We know that in many of these cases that the employer is fudging what they're saying," he said.

"And [if] the workplace is not safe, workers are being left at risk despite they followed the correct procedures."

Florence says he's encouraging people to send a letter to the premier and labour minister to demand all workplace inspections be done in person.

"It's unfair and unsafe for workers if they are being told there isn't a problem if no one has come to look and see if there is a problem," he said.

"The workers need to do things right, but then the Ministry of Labour also needs to do the right thing and come out and do those inspections."

Every so slowly, restrictions are starting to be lifted. And that means, more and more people will be going back to work. That may cause some concern for some, for those who feel their workplace is unsafe or they have a compromised immune system. So what are the rules around refusing unsafe work during COVID19? Scott Florence is the Executive Director with the Sudbury Workers Education & Advocacy Centre. He spoke with Up North host Waubgeshig Rice. 6:43

With files from Up North


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