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Work Refusals

For basic work refusal information (not specific to violence), please refer to the Workers’ Rights resources.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) states that, “Despite anything in any general or special Act, the provisions of this Act and the regulations prevail.” Although administrators and school boards often cite a student’s right to an education in response to workers with safety concerns, these two things are not mutually exclusive. A student can receive their education and workers can be safe when the appropriate supports and protections are in place.

School boards may be concerned about human rights complaints from parents, but health and safety for staff and students must be a priority. It may be necessary for students to be excluded temporarily while a plan is put in place to support them and the safety of others.

Yes. If the psychosocial hazards have reached the threshold where you believe your work is likely to endanger you then you may choose to engage in a work refusal. You may hear or be told that this is not the case; however, the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development (Ministry of Labour) has identified addressing work-related mental health as a part of its strategy. While Ministry of Labour inspectors have not received specific direction on how psychosocial hazards should be addressed, it is important that these issues be raised. ETFO members are setting important precedents when they highlight psychosocial hazards leading to psychological injury or illness.

Whether or not you take the approach of engaging in a work refusal depends on the hazard and how you believe it might endanger you.

For example, if you are repeatedly threatened when you are at work (remember that threats of physical force that could cause injury are considered violence under the OHSA) and it is impacting your psychological well-being (e.g., sleeplessness, symptoms of anxiety), that is a hazard that should be addressed by your employer. Ensure that you are reporting any incidents of violence or harassment and any resulting injuries/illness, including psychological injuries/illness. If your employer does not take steps to address the concerns you are being harmed, and you have reason to believe the harm will continue, that means your work is likely to endanger you psychologically.

If you are experiencing the psychological impact of violence, you should seek support/care from your health care provider. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) may provide benefits and services for your workplace mental stress injury.

If there is a situation in your workplace that is causing you harm but might not be considered a hazard by everyone, you should consult with your ETFO local office. For example, if you are uniquely impacted by loud and sudden noises and a student is struggling with their behaviour and frequently has loud outbursts, but there is no physical force against anyone (or attempts/threats of physical force), that might be better addressed by working with your union, your health care provider, and your employer to ensure that you are accommodated in such a way that you are safe.

If your assigned work involves working in a situation that you believe is likely to endanger you, then you are refusing your assigned work. Once you have initiated that action and you have a health and safety representative there supporting you, your employer will engage in the first stage of the process. This will include looking for a solution to the unsafe situation.

It is only in rare circumstances that the solution will be to move the student to another setting or placement. If you believe this solution makes your work safe, that would signal the end of the work refusal and a return to work.

It’s important to ensure, however, that the solution is not a temporary measure and the situation won’t return to the same unsafe state. If a student is temporarily excluded or moved, or is temporarily provided with support, part of the first stage discussion should be about what will happen during that temporary period of time that will make your work safe when the student returns.

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. It’s also important to remember that under the Education Act and PPM 145, the administrator has the responsibility to “notify the parents of students who have been harmed as the result of a serious student incident.”

Students and parents who express safety concerns to you can also be directed to take their concerns to the principal, superintendents, and trustees.

You may experience a psychological impact from witnessing violence, even if it is not directed at you. If that is the case, you should seek support/care from your health care provider. The WSIB may provide benefits and services for your workplace mental stress injury.

Occasional/temporary members can make the decision to not accept a job in a situation where they believe they would be unsafe.

However, if you accept a job despite being aware of safety concerns and you arrive at the workplace to discover that appropriate protections to keep you safe are not in place, you have the right to refuse unsafe work, even as a daily worker. If you are a teacher, remember that your right is limited – inform the administrator immediately of your intent and they should arrange as soon as possible for the work to be covered, or for your concerns to be addressed. For example, if there is a safety plan in place that you do not have the training to follow, the principal should adjust the plan and the workers involved to ensure that it can be carried out by workers who are trained to do so. Or, if there is a student in the class with a history of violent behaviour and you discover there is no safety plan in place, the administration may arrange for coverage of the class or different supports for the student while the work refusal is discussed.

Sometimes, you may hear about safety concerns at a school but you aren’t aware of the specifics of the situation. If you decide to accept a job at such a school, you cannot then refuse work simply based on a school’s “reputation.” It is important that you be able to articulate your specific concerns and how they cause you to believe that your work is likely to endanger you.

If you believe that you are at risk of injury in your work, then a work refusal may be appropriate. Even if you don’t like the idea and wish that the necessary resources were available, sometimes it takes a worker who refuses to continually subject themselves to violence to prompt change.

Of course, the root of the issue of violence in schools is the unmet needs of students. Advocating for supports to meet the needs of all students, both in the school and in the larger community, will be a necessary part of the solution.

Both as a teacher and as a citizen, you can advocate for change:

  • Document your concerns and send them, in writing, to your administrator.
  • Report all incidents of workplace violence and report both physical and mental stress injuries to WSIB if applicable (for more information on reporting, visit etfohealthandsafety.ca)
  • Consult your health and safety representative and local ETFO leaders
  • Exercise your health and safety rights, including (when appropriate) the right to refuse unsafe work
  • Speak to your elected officials, especially school board trustees and members of provincial parliament
  • Visit BuildingBetterSchools.ca for more information on advocating for improvements to Ontario’s elementary public school system

The process to determine a student’s needs and access appropriate supports or placement can be lengthy, but that does not mean you have to work in an unsafe environment while waiting. If your work is likely to endanger you or another worker, your employer could take other steps. Review the Violence Work Refusal Checklist and determine if you think you should refuse unsafe work.

More topics coming soon