four people holding their hands up, palm forward, text reads "You have the right to refuse unsafe work"

Work Refusal Frequently Asked Questions

For basic work refusal information, please refer to the resources at

For work refusal questions related to violence, please refer to the Violence in Schools FAQs.

A certified worker health and safety representative on the joint health and safety committee must be called during a work refusal and will be present for the investigation. You can also contact your ETFO local for advice. Your local leader may also be permitted to participate but, regardless, you can contact your local leader at any time during the work refusal

No, you must be in a safe place at your normal place of work and prepared to work during a work refusal, since you are still being paid.

During the process, you should remain in a safe place near where you usually work. If your concern involves the entire building, you may be expected to wait in the parking lot. If the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development (Ministry of Labour) is called, the employer can assign you to “reasonable” alternate work while waiting for the Ministry of Labour to begin their investigation. You should not be assigned the work of a different bargaining unit, and you must be available to the Ministry of Labour inspector once they arrive.

In order to engage in a work refusal, you must come to the workplace. But during the process, you must be in a safe place close to where you usually work. In the case of a building that you believe is unsafe, that may mean waiting outside.

No. This does not mean that your concerns are not valid, just that your students are not workers and are not protected by the OHSA. It is still important that you express your concerns to your administrator, who has the ultimate responsibility for the students’ safety.

Students and parents will need to direct their concerns to the principal, superintendents, and trustees.

Yes, but the employer must inform that worker of the work refusal and the reasons for it, in the presence of the worker health and safety representative. (If the parties are not all present in person, they may be part of the conversation on the phone.)

You may choose to tell your colleagues about your intent to refuse unsafe work so they are prepared. They also have the right to refuse the work if they have reason to believe that it is likely to endanger them.

In order to refuse unsafe work each worker must have reason to believe the work is likely to endanger themselves or another worker. A collective decision to engage in a work refusal may be found to be an illegal strike. Each worker must exercise the right to refuse individually and provide their own reason for exercising their right to refuse unsafe work. 

No, the right to refuse is a decision made by the individual worker and it must be arrived at independently. Each worker must make their own refusal and give their own reason for refusing work when they report the refusal.

However, workers can make this decision and refuse work at the same time. Or, if you are intending to refuse unsafe work, you can ensure that your team is aware of their right to refuse unsafe work (you can refer them to their union for more information) and inform them that you plan to engage in a work refusal.

If workers collectively decide to engage in a work refusal, they may be found to have engaged in an illegal strike.

You can be reassigned to “reasonable” alternative work. However, it should be noted that:

  • This assignment should not be the work of another bargaining unit
  • A reassignment is not the end of a work refusal unless you were uniquely unsafe in the situation (e.g., don’t have the appropriate training). If the unsafe situation continues, then so does the work refusal
  • Any reassignment must allow the refusing worker to be available for both the first and second stages of the work refusal

If you are permanently reassigned because of a work refusal, please call your local ETFO office, which will consult with provincial Collective Bargaining Services staff. A reassignment could be seen as a reprisal or as a way to avoid addressing a health and safety hazard.

No proof is needed to exercise the right to refuse unsafe work; you only need to have a genuine reason to believe that the work is unsafe. You should be able to articulate to your employer the reason for your work refusal and why you believe your work is likely to endanger you.

In most cases a work refusal is not the first step. The Ministry asks that workers use the “Internal Responsibility System,” which requires the concern to be raised to the supervisor and/or employer and addressed at that level, rather than being escalated to a complaint or work refusal. Any evidence of reporting a hazard would be helpful (but not required) during a work refusal. Evidence could include documents such as violent incident reports or inspection records, but it could also include documentation like emails to your supervisor relaying your concerns and asking for support or action.

Talk to your local ETFO office or your health and safety representative, who can help you raise your concerns and recommend how to gather relevant, available evidence.

With that said, if you believe that you are in immediate danger, and your employer is not addressing your concerns, you are not required to wait to exercise your right to refuse unsafe work.

If the situation is not resolved in the first stage, the criteria for moving to the second stage of the work refusal is if you still have “reasonable grounds to believe” the situation is likely to endanger you or another worker, which still does not require a significant amount of evidence.

There is a limitation on the right of teachers, specifically, to refuse unsafe work. The law states that the right to refuse “does not apply to a teacher where the circumstances are such that the life, health or safety of a pupil is in imminent jeopardy.”

This does NOT mean that teachers can only do a work refusal if they are in imminent jeopardy (which is a common misinterpretation of school boards).

If an administrator ever prevents you from refusing unsafe work, or refuses to acknowledge your work refusal, contact your local ETFO office and the Ministry of Labour.

Some teachers choose to alert their administrator in advance of their intent to refuse unsafe work (for example, the day before school or prior to the start of the school day). This has the advantage of giving the administrator the opportunity to address concerns before a work refusal happens. You may also alert your local ETFO office about your intent. Your local leader may be able to advocate on your behalf, including escalating the concern to more senior board administration.

If you do not have students in your care (e.g., nutrition break, prep time) advise your administrator you are exercising your right to refuse unsafe work. They should immediately arrange to have your responsibilities covered or to remove the hazard, and the work refusal process can begin.

If you have students in your care and you decide you want to exercise your right to refuse unsafe work, do not leave them unsupervised. Alert your administrator and ask that they arrange for the class to be covered as soon as possible.

If no arrangement is made to cover your responsibilities, you should not have to return to refused work. Your administrator should arrange for your responsibilities to be covered or should do so themselves. If you are directed to do refused work, follow the direction but inform your local ETFO office and the Ministry of Labour as soon as possible or during the investigation.

If no one is responding when you have summonned assistance, you can bring your class to the office with you, if possible. If there is a safety plan in place, it should have contingency plans for evacuating the classroom if necessary. investigation.

In the event of an emergency where immediate help is needed from a police officer, firefighter, or paramedic, no one is prevented from calling 911.

No, education workers have the right to refuse unsafe work that they believe is likely to endanger them, without limitations. The specific limitations on work refusals to ensure students are not in “imminent jeopardy” refers only to teachers as defined by the Education Act. 

The employer may indicate you have a “duty of care” to the students if you are hired for before or after school programs when teachers are not present, but the OHSA does not put any legal restrictions on your right to refuse.

Yes, if you believe your work is likely to endanger you, you can refuse unsafe work. Note that a health and safety concern that is unique to you because of a medical condition, for example, during pregnancy, is ideally addressed through the medical accommodation process, usually requiring the submission of a form and medical documentation. Contact your local ETFO office and/or provincial Professional Relations Services (PRS) staff for support.

Your employer has the responsibility to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.” Workplace health and safety includes psychological health and safety. If you believe your work is likely to endanger you, even if the harm is psychological, you have the right to refuse unsafe work.

ETFO members are setting important precedents when they highlight psychosocial hazards leading to psychological injury or illness.

If possible, speak to your local ETFO office or provincial PRS staff. They can help you understand your options, including accommodations or harassment reports, that might also address your concern. If you have work-related mental stress injuries, you may also be entitled to benefits and services under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

That is incorrect, violence is not a regular part of working in a school. The only limitation on the right to refuse unsafe work for ETFO members is that teachers, specifically, cannot refuse work if their students are “in imminent jeopardy.”

The OHSA does state that workers do not have the right to refuse unsafe work when the risk is a normal condition of the worker’s employment, such as police or firefighters, though even in these cases the employer still has the responsibility to take every precaution necessary to keep workers safe. An ETFO member working in a school is not included in the list of workers to whom this stipulation applies.

It is important to clearly make the distinction between an unsafe work refusal and insubordination. To do this, indicate from the outset that your refusal is based on a concern for your own health and safety or that of your co-workers. There are no required phrases or words to initiate the process, but you should clearly state your reasons and reference the OHSA, so your refusal is not confused with insubordination.

The law protects workers from reprisals, such as discipline, penalties, or intimidation, when they exercise their rights under the OHSA. If it appears that you are being prevented from exercising your rights or you believe that there have been reprisals against you, contact your local ETFO office as soon as possible.

These situations should be discussed with your local ETFO office, which will consult with provincial Collective Bargaining Services staff if necessary. Be prepared to provide historical context such as your previous assignments and records of communications with your administrator about placement, and examine other factors that may be involved.

These situations should be discussed with your local ETFO office, which will consult with provincial Collective Bargaining Services staff if necessary. They can highlight ways in which keeping a record of your previous pattern of daily jobs, interviews, or communications with administrators may help if you experience what you believe to be a reprisal.

Your local leader can also help raise and escalate your concerns in order to help address the hazard.

ETFO considers any work refusal that is undertaken because of a sincere belief that the work is unsafe to be successful, since it forces the employer to address the concerns. The act of stating the intent to engage in a work refusal highlights to their supervisor that the member understands their rights and is prepared to use them. Principals and school boards would rather avoid work refusals, if they can.

A work refusal that is resolved at the first stage involves a conversation with the employer/supervisor (supported by the worker health and safety representative) about the worker’s concerns.

When a work refusal goes to the second stage, the Ministry of Labour sometimes applies a very rigid interpretation of the work refusal criteria, requiring proof that the hazard exists at the time of the investigation. Even where the Ministry of Labour inspector determines that the work refusal does not meet their criteria, they will still investigate the concern as a complaint and can issue orders against the employer.

If the results of the investigation are inadequate (resulting in no orders or insufficient orders), there are avenues ETFO can use to pursue the concerns, including an appeal to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. If you believe this is the case, contact your local ETFO office right away. If ETFO determines that an appeal under the OHSA is appropriate, it must be filed within 30 days of the date of the field visit report from the Ministry of Labour.

Sometimes there are no orders because there was not a violation of the OHSA at the time of the investigation, but your employer and joint health and safety committee may have additional advice to follow.