Bill 30 (Act to Protect the Health and Well-Being of Working Albertans) aims to promote workers’ physical and psychological health, prevent workplace incidents and injuries, and ensure that workers know about workplace hazards and can refuse dangerous work without discrimination, among other things. ADWA participated in community consultations representing the needs and workplace issues of disability workers. The changes made reflect some of the key points we made.
Who is affected?
Until Bill 30 was introduced, some of ADWA’s members—namely those who work directly for families in the family’s home—were not covered by the Occupational Health & Safety Act. Bill 30 gives equal coverage to disability workers regardless of whether they work for an agency or a family. As well, self-employed individuals (e.g., some supportive roommates and neighbours) are also covered by Bill 30. The health & safety roles of contractors, employers, supervisors and service providers (e.g., trainers and consultants) are also specified.
The concept of “work site” has also been expanded to include anywhere a worker is practising their occupation, including a vehicle being used for work. While some parts of the Bill are still easier to picture for an office, construction site or industrial setting, the definition or work site recognizes that the community is our work site in this sector.
Dangerous work and the right to refuse
Workers have always had a right and duty to refuse work if it presents an “imminent danger” to them or others present, but “imminent danger” was defined as danger that is not normal for an occupation. Unlike most other professions, the main danger for disability workers does not come from working with hazardous equipment or objects, but from the complex service needs of some of the people we support—whether managing lifts and transfers or mental health issues. For instance, employers in our sector routinely require disability workers to take training in preventing and managing crises that could lead to violent actions by some of those we support. This indicates that dangers of this kind are considered “normal” for the occupation. As such, disability workers’ legal right to refuse work that they felt endangered them was limited by this definition of “imminent danger” (although employers of choice always try to accommodate their workers’ safety concerns).
Bill 30 eliminates the concept of “imminent danger” from the law and gives workers the right to refuse work they believe on reasonable grounds is dangerous to their health or safety or that of another person. In the context of supporting individuals with complex service needs, a disability worker must feel (and be) competent to perform work safely without supervision or with minimal supervision because the worker is “adequately qualified, suitably trained and with sufficient experience.” While employers have an obligation to ensure that workers have access to the training and experiences to build competence, workers also have an obligation to take advantage of those opportunities and do what is possible to become competent to fulfill their job requirements safely. In addition to training, employers may also institute safety procedures and emergency response plans, including the use of panic buttons and other safety devices, to address safety concerns of workers. The same principles apply to preventing injuries from lifts and transfers.
Bill 30 also introduces the obligation for employers to inform others assigned to that role in writing of the first worker’s refusal, the reasons for the refusal and that they, too, have the right to refuse to carry out that role. Employers can also say why they believe the work does not constitute a danger to that person’s health or safety or what has been done to address the safety issues.
Workers who have refused work because of its dangers are entitled to continue to receive the same wages and benefits as before with a temporary reassignment to alternate work and cannot be discriminated against (e.g., termination, layoff, suspension, demotion, reprimand) because of the refusal. In our sector where some disability workers are casual and on-call, or in those settings where most of the people served have complex service needs, it is hard to know how these rules will be interpreted.
Incidents, investigations and privacy
Injuries at work must be reported to the government if they result in a hospital admission, but not if it is simply an emergency room visit. While investigations are assumed to focus on hazards on the work site, disability work may take place anywhere, including the homes of the individuals served. Bill 30 recognizes that individuals have the right to control access to their own home. Investigating officers are allowed to inspect a work site without a warrant or permission, unless it is a private dwelling. If a private home or a room in it was the site of a workplace injury for a disability worker and an investigating officer wishes to inspect the site, the officer must get the consent of the owner or person who lives there to do so or must get a judge’s warrant.
Health & Safety Committees and representatives
In addition to the right to know about workplace hazards and refuse dangerous work, Bill 30 also says that workers have the right to participate meaningfully in health and safety activities and express related concerns. Organizations with 20 or more workers must have a joint work site health and safety committee. This committee hears health and safety concerns, inspects work sites and identifies hazards to workers, develops and promotes measures to protect workers and checks their effectiveness, develops and promotes health and safety-related training and information, makes recommendations to employers or contractors, and participates in investigations of serious injuries and incidents. Organizations with 5 – 19 workers must have a health and safety representative who carries out a similar function to that of the committee in larger organizations.
Violence, harassment and mental health
While Bill 30 identifies and defines violence and harassment as types of workplace hazards, and expands health and safety beyond physical injury and illness to include psychological impacts, it is short on details as to how these are to be prevented, reported or investigated. While stress is very real with serious long-term impacts on physical health, it has traditionally been challenging to make a successful WCB claim. Proposed changes to the Workers’ Compensation Act expand the list of occupations and situations that commonly produce post-traumatic stress disorder. It will probably take some time and additional consultation to develop clear guidelines around these issues.