Preventing work refusals: start with a positive safety culture

Jul 12, 2017

handshakeWorkers have three guaranteed rights under Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act, including the right to refuse to perform work believed to be unsafe. But this right is often enacted as a last resort, when other means to resolve a health and safety concern have failed, says WSPS ergonomist Tanya Muller.

"Refusals can occur when workers and supervisors don't fully understand what a work refusal is, and is not, when there’s a poor relationship between workers and management, or when perceived hazards are not acted on," explains Tanya. (For real life examples, see Is it a work refusal or labour relations complaint? Understand the difference.)

All three of these situations are inconsistent with the positive culture you need to foster health, safety and organizational success, says Tanya. "Workplaces with a vibrant health and safety culture, and good two-way communication, are often able to resolve health and safety concerns so that they don't escalate to a refusal."

So what are the elements of a positive safety culture, and how do you know when your culture needs to be improved?

Key building blocks

A positive safety culture is based on leadership, trust, good communication, and shared values, attitudes and beliefs, says Muller.

"To ensure a good safety culture, you must first have the right building blocks in place." Tanya identifies four.

Building block 1 - ensure you have a basic health and safety program that includes:

  • training for workers and supervisors on hazards and how to control them.
  • training on violence and harassment that promotes respect. "Civility and respect are the keys to good relationships," says Muller.
  • training for workers on work refusal intent and process. "A worker can refuse when he feels there is a specific hazard that is likely to endanger him. Group refusals, refusals with no specified hazard, and refusals based on personal relationships are not allowed."
  • a well-communicated hazard reporting procedure. "You see a hazard, you report the hazard, the supervisor deals with the hazard. If it's not dealt with, the supervisor needs to explain why. When the hazard reporting procedure is working well, it helps to prevent work refusals," says Muller.
  • procedures for investigating incidents and inspecting the workplace.
  • a well-functioning joint health and safety committee. "JHSCs can help foster good workplace relations by bringing issues forward or clarifying issues between workers and supervisors."

Building block 2 - ensure procedures are implemented and used, and supervisors and managers are held accountable. “For example, hazard reports are actioned, incidents are investigated, and workplace inspections are done.”

Building block 3 -& proactively identify hazards (not just after something happens), and ensure you obtain worker input. For example:

  • integrate health and safety into all business activities
  • use a participatory approach to involve workers. "Ask workers for input on how tasks could be performed more safely and efficiently."
  • take health and safety (including ergonomics) into consideration when purchasing or installing equipment

Building block 4 - strong and caring leadership from the top, and from managers at every level.

  • "Instead of an 'us vs. them' attitude, everyone works together with a common goal of producing/selling a quality product safely," explains Muller.
  • information is freely shared both ways between management and workers.

Culture surveys can help

If you're still seeing work refusals, there's something wrong, says Muller. A cultural survey by WSPS can investigate trends and help you pinpoint issues. "It could come down to bad relations with a particular supervisor, or a perception that management provides only lip service to concerns about hazards."

Another great tool is an online Guarding Minds at Work survey*, which looks at 13 workplace factors that have a direct impact on workplace well-being. The survey asks questions about organizational culture, leadership and expectations, recognition and rewards, respect and civility, among others.

How we can help

Identify, assess and take steps to control hazards with a hazard management tool devised by the WSIB, WSPS and other health and safety system partners. Download it today.

Want some help? WSPS also provides a full complement of risk analysis services.

*Guarding Minds @ Work (GM@W) is a comprehensive set of free resources developed by researchers from the Simon Fraser University's Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction: