Alberta’s Occupational Health & Safety (OH&S) laws set out the minimum standards for a safe and healthy workplace. There are new rules as of June 1, 2018. What is listed here applies to workers before the new rules go into effect. To see upcoming changes, look at our E-Bulletin on the subject. Here are some common questions related to disability worker safety and OH&S laws.
Not everyone in our field is currently protected by the OH&S Act. Disability workers who are employed by service provider agencies are protected. Disability workers who are employed by families in a Family-Managed Service arrangement are only covered in certain settings. When you work in the person’s home or elsewhere on their property, you are considered to be a “domestic servant,” which the law does not include as an occupation. When your support is given in the community, you are no longer a “domestic servant” and are protected by OH&S laws. We have informed the Minister of Labour of this problem. When these laws come up for review, ADWA will advocate for a change so that all disability workers are protected wherever they provide support.
Both workers and employers have responsibilities to keep everyone in the workplace safe. Employers are required to ensure the health and safety of workers as far as “reasonably practical” and to ensure that workers know their responsibilities in ensuring their health and safety. Workers are required to follow employer health and safety rules and take reasonable care to protect the health and safety of themselves and others at work.
The OH&S Act defines employer and worker responsibilities in protecting health and safety and in reporting accidents at work sites. Your “work site” is wherever you carry out the responsibilities you are paid for. As a disability worker, it may include an office, the home of the person you support, their job site or other places in the broader community. The work site includes your car when used for work, such as taking individuals you support to or from an appointment, job or other activity. It does not include driving to or from your work. Needless to say, employers have little control over the safety of community settings—it is just not “reasonably practical.” Your responsibility to take reasonable care of yourself and those you support at work is still required. The Act says the Minister may require an employer to have a Health & Safety committee that includes both workers and management staff, as well as written health and safety policies that workers know about.
The OH&S Act says, “No worker shall carry out any work if, on reasonable and probably grounds, the worker believes that there exists an imminent danger to the health or safety of that worker” (Section 35(1)). It defines imminent danger as “a danger that is not normal for that occupation, or a danger under which a person engaged in that occupation would not normally carry out the person’s work” (Section 35(2)). For example, if equipment you need to use is not in good working order (e.g., likely to give you an electrical shock or cut you), you could legally refuse to use it and your employer could not penalize you for your refusal.
The more complicated situation is if you want to refuse to work with a person who has violent behaviour because you do not feel safe with that individual. Because disability workers are routinely required to have training in non-violent crisis prevention, the law recognizes that working with violent individuals is “normal for that occupation,” even though most of the individuals supported are not at all violent. Therefore, if you have had the required training, you may have difficulty making a legal case if you are let go from the job for refusing to work with an individual because you felt unsafe. As a worker, you must take responsibility to learn and practice the skills needed for safety. The OH&S Regulation says that if work may put a worker in danger, the employer must ensure that the worker is competent to do the work or is supervised directly on the work site by a worker who is competent to do the work (i.e., not working alone). Therefore, your employer is obligated to support you in your efforts to be safe by paying for safety training, setting time for workers to practice skills and supporting safe practices, which may include working in pairs. (We will provide an internal link to our E-Bulletin on this topic here.)
The OH&S Act says that employers must report serious injuries and accidents to the government that result in
- Hospital admission
- Explosions, fires or floods that could result in a serious injury
- Collapse of any part of a building or structure that holds a building together
They must also report potentially serious incidents that could have caused injury or death but did not.
The OH&S Code details different types of hazards and the protections required. The Code requires employers to conduct a hazard assessment of its work sites and involve the workers there in controlling or eliminating the hazards, and/or supply personal protective equipment for workers (e.g., latex gloves for those providing personal care). Here are the most common hazards in the OH&S Code that are relevant to disability work:
- Hazardous chemicals – The Code identifies a number of chemicals and the safe level of exposure in an 8-hour period. Besides asbestos and lead, which might be present in floors or walls of older buildings, the list includes mould, many cleaning supplies found in homes, offices or job sites of individuals being supported, as well as gasoline and propane. Workers must be informed of any hazardous materials at their work site. Employers must have a code of practice for safe storage, handling, use and disposal of any hazardous chemicals at the work site. Workers must follow those rules. Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) rules must be followed, including having current material safety data sheets from the supplier available to workers who may be exposed.
- Emergency response plans – Employers and workers must jointly identify emergencies that could require rescue or evacuation and create an emergency response plan that includes identifying potential emergencies, procedures for dealing with them, how to use emergency response equipment and training requirements, location of emergency facilities, fire protection requirements, alarm/emergency communication requirements, needed first aid services, rescue and evacuation procedures and who will be in charge of the process. The most common example is response to a residential fire, with fire drills as part of the training requirements. The employer must provide personal protective clothing and equipment to their designated rescue/evacuation workers related to the emergencies in the plan and workers must wear and use them in the relevant emergency.
- Safe buildings – Employers must ensure that doors, stairs, ramps and pathways used in emergencies are clear, safe and easy to use. That includes surfaces with traction to avoid slipping, doors that open easily and stairways with more than 5 steps having a handrail. Drop-offs of more than 1.2 meters are to be protected by a guardrail to prevent falls.
- First aid – Employers are to ensure that first aid equipment/supplies and services are available and accessible at or near the work site during all working hours. Workers should know where first aid supplies are kept. In disability work, employees are generally required to have up-to-date first aid training as part of meeting this requirement. Employers must provide a means of communication at the work site to be able to call an ambulance if needed. Workers are required to report an illness or injury at work that requires immediate care to their employer as soon as practical after it happens.
- Safe lifting – Workers who are required to lift, carry or move heavy objects (including persons) should have and use equipment that will help them do so safely. This equipment requirement is reasonably practical in a home environment, but is less likely to be possible when working out in the community. Employers are required to have a safe lifting/transferring protocol with an annual evaluation of its effectiveness. Workers are required to follow the protocol. Employers must also determine whether a worker has the physical capability to lift a person safely. They must ensure that employees who are required to lift or move heavy loads are trained to recognize factors that could lead to their injury, signs that they have injured themselves and preventative measures to take. Workers must assess the hazards and plan how to move heavy loads safely before acting.
- Liquids and toilet access – An employer cannot restrict a worker’s access to liquids (e.g., water) for hydration and toilet facilities. While most of the OH&S Code’s rules in this area are clearly designed for construction sites rather than community disability work, Part 24 of the Code clearly intended that necessary bathroom breaks should not be restricted by employers.
- Violence and working alone – Employers must have policies and procedures around workplace violence and inform workers about how to recognize it, ways to minimize or eliminate it, how to respond and get help when it happens, and how to report, investigate and document it. If an employee is along on a job site without help being easily available in an emergency, the employer must provide an effective communication system (e.g., radio, phone, panic button or system of regular pre-planned contact with an on-call staff) to use in an emergency. If such a system is not practical, the employer must ensure that someone checks in on the worker by visiting or contacting them at intervals “appropriate to the nature of the hazard.”
The Alberta government has a number of resources that help workers understand their rights to a safe and healthy workforce, as well as to help them stay safe and healthy. Here are some you may find useful:
- Worker’s Guide to Occupational Health and Safety (brochure)
- How to Work Safety and Stay Healthy - list of resources on OHS topics, including
For a wider range of information that is focused on disability work, download the Staff Safety Toolkit from ACDS.
If your employer provides coverage through WCB and you need to make a claim, Alberta Injured Workers is a website for and by injured workers that you may find useful in navigating that system.
To ask a question or report a concern or safety incident, phone the OHS Contact Centre toll-free at 1-866-415-8690.