A steward must take an active interest in health and safety. You should be able to help a worker use the health and safety legislation. In each jurisdiction, there is a law and a set of regulations that apply to your workplace.
Our union has a Health and Safety Department; staff are ready and able to assist any local union that calls.
In many workplaces, our negotiators have successfully forced employers to recognize their responsibility to provide Health and Safety training to the workers. In most cases, the employers are using the training opportunities provided by the Unifor Health and Safety Department.
In a number of our bargaining units, we have been successful in negotiating full time Health and Safety Representatives who coordinate and enforce the Health and Safety programs of the Union.
They assist our union’s Health & Safety Department and the local union Health and Safety Representatives. In some large workplaces we have also negotiated Ergonomics Coordinators and Health & Safety Training Funds to better protect our members.
In our smaller units, it is common for a steward to also be a member of the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee. It is also common to have a Health and Safety Representative on the day shift, but not on afternoons or midnights. In these situations, the Union should work out a representation process that best suits the particular circumstances.
In some cases, the day shift Health and Safety Representative might wish to be called in to investigate complaints or incidents on an off shift. The steward should make sure that the Health and Safety Representative is notified.
On shifts where there is both a steward and a Health and Safety Representative, the steward should refer health and safety business to the Health and Safety Representative for resolution.
A number of health and safety courses are offered by our National Union, ranging from one-day to weeklong programs on a variety of topics (from the general to the specific). They give participants a trade union perspective on health and safety and cover issues such as the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to know about workplace hazards.
As a steward, you should take the time to take one of these courses. You will gain knowledge that no union representative should ever be without.
The right to refuse unsafe work
The right to refuse unsafe work starts with the right to know. Workers have the right to know information that could affect their health or safety in the workplace. Workers have the right to training and information on machinery, equipment, working conditions, processes and hazardous substances. For example, workers have the right to information about chemicals they are using or exposed to while at work.
Workers have the right to refuse unsafe work if they think they are in danger, or that their work endangers someone else. It is illegal for the employer to discipline workers for refusing unsafe work.
Here’s how it generally works:
- The worker reports the problem to their supervisor and says they are “exercising their right to refuse unsafe work.”
- The worker notifies their union representative as soon as possible.
- The supervisor has to investigate and attempt to fix the problem. No other worker can be assigned to do the job unless they are told about the work refusal and the reasons for it.
- If the worker doesn’t feel like the problem is fixed, and believes there are still reasonable grounds to refuse, then the union rep will guide them through the next steps (in adherence with the provincial / federal guidelines for work refusals).
The right to refuse is protected in law, and union reps need to know the laws and processes that need to be followed. They also need to be prepared to respond if an employer attempts to discipline a worker for exercising their legal right to refuse.
It takes courage to stand up and exercise our right to refuse, but it may be the only way for workers to protect themselves, and could even save a life.
Workers also have the right to participate. Encourage workers in your area to get involved by reporting unsafe conditions, voicing their concerns, becoming a health & safety rep or taking part in a Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee.
Unions today remain committed to defending health and safety legislation so that all workers – whether they have a union or not – can exercise their right to healthy and safe workplaces.