Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 at Work
Increased stress, anxiety, fear, and frustration are on the rise as COVID-19 cases continue to grow, and this is taking a toll on workers’ mental health. There are many employers who are taking steps to protect workers and customers from the coronavirus, but there are also some who are not.
UFCW Canada members are on the front lines of the pandemic and they are voicing frustration and concerns that employers are turning a blind eye to workplace safety measures, including sanitizing procedures, social distancing, and enforcing mandatory mask-wearing in the workplace.
In all jurisdictions across Canada, both the employer and the supervisor have the legal duty to take every precaution reasonable to protect workers, including steps to protect employees from COVID-19. The Government of Canada has stated that wearing a mask alone will not prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and that people must consistently adhere to public health measures, such as frequent hand washing and physical distancing.
Most workers across Canada have three fundamental health and safety rights in the workplace: The Right to Know, the Right to Participate, and the Right to Refuse unsafe Work. But the reality is that only unionized workers have the power to assert these rights without fear of employer reprisals. Below is a summary of your three rights.
What is the Right to Know?
The Right to Know refers to the right of all workers to access information about hazards in their workplace and the right to be informed about actual and potential dangers at work. This includes the threat of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.
What is the Right to Participate?
Workers across Canada have the Right to Participate in addressing health and safety issues in their workplace, including being involved in decisions of appropriate COVID-19 hazard control measures for employees and customers. Depending on the size of your workplace, you can participate through a health and safety committee, as a worker health and safety representative, or simply by providing suggestions to your supervisor or worker representative on the committee.
What is the Right to Refuse?
Workers have the Right to Refuse work if they have reason to believe that the situation is unsafe to themselves or others. If you believe that a work refusal should be initiated, you should follow these steps:
- Report to your supervisor that you are exercising your right to refuse to work and state why you believe the situation is unsafe.
- The employee, supervisor, and a health and safety member, or employee representative, will investigate.
- If the situation is not resolved at this stage, the employee can continue to refuse, but they must have reasonable grounds for believing the work is unsafe.
Reasonable grounds may include:
- The employer failing to take every precaution reasonable to protect workers by exempting contractors, employees, and customers from the COVID-19 safety measures. This may include a lack of proper hygiene practices, neglecting to enforce physical distancing in the workplace, and failing to require mandatory mask-wearing.
- If the problem is not resolved, a government health and safety inspector is called.
- The inspector investigates and gives a decision in writing.
If you have any questions on these matters and require more clarity, including the option of exercising your grievance procedure, please speak with your Local Union representative. You can access the UFCW Canada Local Union directory here.