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Speaking Up About Health and Safety at Work

It’s important that you feel comfortable speaking regularly about health and safety at work. It helps you to be on the same page with your co-workers and your employer when it comes to following the rules and procedures.

Most employers want to keep their workers healthy and safe. A good safety record also helps the business succeed and keeps insurance costs down. So employers will usually appreciate your questions and suggestions.

But no matter what, if you feel unsafe, you must speak up.

Know your rights

Alberta has laws to protect your health and safety at work. These outline your rights as an employee, which include the right to:

  • Refuse work you feel is dangerous and be protected from reprisal.
  • Know about workplace hazards.
  • Take part in making decisions about health and safety at your workplace. For example, you can get involved in your work health and safety committee.

If a workplace is unsafe, Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) officers can require changes, shut down equipment, or stop work all together. They can also impose administrative penalties and give tickets to people who are not following OHS regulations.

Take time to learn about your rights and responsibilities, as well as those of your employer and supervisor.

Ask about health and safety

Talking directly with your supervisor about health and safety will show how important these topics are for you. You might want to ask about your health and safety rights or your responsibilities. Below are some other questions you can ask.

What are the hazards at my job?

Hazards are anything that could possibly hurt you, even if it does not affect you right away, including:

  • Loud noise that could lead to hearing loss
  • Radiation, dust, mould, or chemicals that could contribute to illness or disease
  • Weather that could cause sunburn, frostbite, or windburn
  • Violence or harassment

Will I receive training?

Your supervisor must make sure you have the information and training to do your job safely. If you’re still learning, someone with all the training has to directly supervise your work.

Do we have a health and safety committee (HSC) or a health and safety (HS) rep?

Work sites of a certain number of workers must have an HSC or an HS rep. If your work site has one, the HSC’s or HS rep’s contact information must be posted so you know who to talk to.

What safety equipment do I use?

If there is a breathing or noise hazard, your employer has to provide personal protective equipment (PPE). If you need a hard hat, safety boots, flame-resistant clothing, or eye protection, you may have to supply them yourself. No matter who supplies it, your supervisor has to make sure you use the required PPE.

When should I expect emergency training?

Your orientation should include emergency training—for example, evacuation procedures, fire drills, or Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) training.

Where are the fire extinguishers, first aid kits, and emergency equipment?

Your supervisor or a co-worker has to show you where these are. Instructions for how to use them should be clearly marked on the equipment.

Who has first aid certification?

The names of certified first aid responders who are available at all times, and where they are located at work, should be posted in a place you can find easily.

What do I do if I’m injured?

You should have access to first aid responders and kits. Know and follow your workplace incident reporting procedures.

What do I do if I have a health and safety question?

Talk with your supervisor. Your HSC or HS rep (if there is one at your workplace) is a good source of information.

Speak up if you feel unsafe

If you’re not comfortable talking to your supervisor:
  • Ask a family member, an older friend, or a teacher for advice.
  • Talk to the HS rep, or someone on the HSC at your workplace.
  • Ask a co-worker you trust for advice. You can even ask that person to go with you when you talk with your supervisor.

Though it is your right to refuse work you think might be dangerous, it’s not always easy to talk about this with your supervisor.

Even if you think it may be a tough conversation, always go to your direct supervisor first. Only talk to your supervisor’s boss if your supervisor does not deal with your concerns.

How should you start the conversation?

Start the conversation in a way that shows your respect and positive attitude. Politely ask for a minute of your supervisor’s time, and say something like:

  • “I really want to make sure I do this job right. What should I know about doing it safely?”
  • “I’d like to do this job, but I think it could be dangerous because (say why). What do you think?”
  • “I need some training before I do this job. Can we set something up?”

How should your supervisor respond?

A good supervisor will likely:

  • Get rid of any hazards so the work is safe
  • Train you on the spot
  • Get a more experienced worker to do your task until you are trained
  • Have you work with a more experienced co-worker

What should you say if your supervisor does not help?

If your supervisor still insists you do the work, start by saying you know you have the right to refuse a task you feel could be dangerous. Then say that you really like your job but that you cannot do the task until:

  • You have the training to do it safely
  • The equipment is working properly
  • Both you and your supervisor know you can do it without getting hurt

Choose whichever option fits your situation best.

You might be asking yourself:
  • What if my supervisor wants me to do something right away and I’ve got a gut feeling it’s unsafe?
    • Trust your gut. If in doubt, don’t do it. Stay respectful and calm.

  • Say no? Seriously? How can I tell my supervisor I won’t do something because it’s dangerous?
    • The OHS Act protects you by law.

The law says you can’t be fired

It is illegal for you to be fired because you refuse work you think is unsafe. The OHS Act [pdf] says that no one can take, or threaten, any discriminatory action against a worker (like firing them) because the worker did what the OHS Act tells them to do.

Every supervisor will react differently when you bring up an unsafe situation. Most will thank you and change things. But others won’t, and you might have to talk with them more than once. They may get impatient or angry. That’s OK because things could still work out.

If you work for an employer who does not handle things properly or who fires you, you have the right to take legal action and report your employer. OHS has information on how to make a report or take other actions.

Most employers know it is in everyone’s best interests to work together on health and safety at the work site. Take your responsibilities seriously. You, your co-workers, your supervisor, and your employer each play an important role in protecting people from hazards and maintaining a healthy and safe workplace.

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