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Health and safety in the workplace

Region: Ontario Answer # 594


Occupational Health and Safety Act  (OHSA)

Everyday, workers are faced with many types of health and safety issues in the workplace. Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), sets out minimum health and safety standards for workplaces in Ontario. It applies to almost every worker, supervisor, employer and workplace. Recent amendments to the OHSA broadened the definition of worker to include people who are not compensated for their work, such as interns and trainees. This change ensures that all workers whether paid or not, will be protected by the OHSA. All provincially regulated employers are required by law to post a copy of the Act in the workplace, usually in lunch rooms, lounge areas or workshops.

The main purpose of the OHSA is to protect workers from health and safety hazards on the job. The law sets out both the responsibilities of the employer and the rights of workers. It also establishes procedures for dealing with workplace hazards and enforces the law where the employer has not complied voluntarily.

The OHSA has detailed regulations governing many aspects of worker safety, including exposure and handling of biological and chemical agents, toxic substances, workplace violence, and a Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System.

Under the OHSA, workers — except for police, firefighters, corrections officers, hospital workers and others in these sectors (federal workers are covered under the Canada Labour Code) — have a right to refuse or stop work if they feel their health or safety is in danger. For example, workers may refuse to work or do a particular job, if they have reason to believe that equipment is likely to endanger either themselves or another worker. In such cases, reprisals by an employer, of a an employee who refuses such work, are prohibited under the law.


Joint Health and Safety Committees

To keep employees safe, the OHSA sets out several requirements that must be met by employers. Usually, this involves a business setting up a Joint Health and Safety Committee to meet regularly and implement safety programs.

The main purpose of the Committee is to identify workplace health and safety problems and bring them to the attention of the employer. Committees are comprised of at least two people and represent both the workers and the employer. A Committee must be established if:

  • The workplace regularly employs 20 or more workers;
  • There are construction projects expected to last three months or longer with 20 or more workers;
  • A designated substance regulation applies to the workplace (other than a construction project);
  • An order, dealing with toxic substances, has been issued under the OHSA to the workplace; and
  • Where the Minister of Labour orders a Committee to be established.

If a workplace has more than 5 but less than 20 workers it is not generally required to have a Committee. When this is the case, workers must choose a person from among themselves to be a health and safety representative.


Employer responsibilities under the OHSA

In addition to creating a Joint Health and Safety Committee, employers are also required to:

  • Take all reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of workers;
  • Ensure that equipment, materials and protective equipment are maintained in good condition;
  • Provide information, instruction and supervision to protect worker health and safety;
  • Co-operate with and provide health and safety reports to the Joint Health and Safety Committee;
  • Comply with all regulations made under the OHSA;
  • Develop and implement a health and safety program and policy;
  • The Occupational Health and Safety Awareness and Training Regulation requires health and safety awareness training for every worker and supervisor (as of June 2014); and
  • Post a copy of the OHSA in the workplace.


Employee responsibilities under the OHSA

Workers also have a responsibility for personal health and safety under the law. Essentially, employees must cooperate with the employer in regards to safety measures and ensure that they do not operate equipment in a way that would endanger themselves or others. Specifically, the law requires workers to:

  • Work in compliance with the OHSA and regulations;
  • Use any equipment, protective devices or clothing required by the employer;
  • Tell the employer or supervisor about any known missing or defective equipment or protective device that may be dangerous;
  • Report any known workplace hazard, or violation of the OHSA, to the employer or supervisor;
  • Not remove or make ineffective any protective device required by the employer or by the regulations.


What are occupational hazards?

Some employees, such as those who work with hazardous materials, or whose job involves a great amount of physical labour, may be faced with occupational hazards.

Under the OHSA, an occupational hazard is a thing or situation, which has the potential to harm a worker. Occupational hazards are generally divided into two categories:

  1. Safety hazards that cause accidents that physically injure workers, and
  2. Health hazards which result in the development of disease.

The law defines occupational illness as, “a condition that results from exposure in a workplace to a physical, chemical or biological agent to the extent that the normal physiological mechanisms are affected and the health of the worker is impaired.”

In addition to the OHSA, there are many other laws, regulations and policies in place that deal with health and safety issues. These laws are created and enforced by both the government and by specific industry sectors, such as window washers or asbestos workers.


Harassment in the workplace

Another type of safety issue in the workplace is harassment. Harassment that occurs in the workplace is defined as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace, that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” This can include bullying, intimidating or offensive jokes or innuendos, displaying or circulating offensive pictures or materials, or offensive or intimidating phone calls.

All employers must have policies in place that deal not only with harassment complaints, but that also provide information and training about what constitutes harassment or even violence in the workplace. The goal is that the employer take active steps to forestall such behaviour, and where such behaviour does occur, deal effectively with the situation.

For more information, visit the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety to view their fact sheet on Bullying in the Workplace.


Sexual Harassment in the workplace

In the case of a sexual harassment complaint, employers have several duties, including the duty to:

  • Investigate the complaint
  • Keep the information confidential
  • Inform the parties of the results
  • Consult with the Health and Safety Committee.

For more information, refer to topic # 620 Employers’ responsibility to deal with sexual harassment complaints.


Violence in the workplace

In addition to harassment, violence in the workplace is also a grave concern.

All provincially regulated employers in Ontario are required to develop harassment and violence policies, and implement programs to support those policies at the workplace. If the employer has six or more workers, the policies must be in writing and posted in the workplace. If less than six employees are regularly employed, the policy does not have to be written, however, an inspector from the Ministry of Labour may order the employer to put it in writing.

Workplace violence is any exercise of physical force by a person against a worker in a workplace that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker. The Act’s definition also includes any attempt to exercise physical force, and any statement or behaviour that it is reasonable for a worker to interpret as a threat to exercise physical force against the worker.

In addition to policies that the employer must develop, depending on the circumstances, violent acts, and in some cases acts of harassment in the workplace are criminal. In such cases, the police should be contacted immediately.


Domestic violence in the workplace

It should be noted that employers who are aware, or ought reasonably to be aware, that domestic violence may occur in the workplace must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect a worker at risk of physical injury. For example, employers must take steps to protect workers if there is a risk that a violent spouse would come into the workplace. If a violent spouse does enter the workplace, however, it is advisable for the employer to contact the police right away.

More information on violence in the workplace, for both employees and employers, can be found from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

What to do if you have a health or safety concern

If you have a health and safety concern at your workplace, you should first inform your employer or supervisor. If the employer does not rectify the problem, you can then speak to your health and safety representative or Joint Health and Safety Committee. If the situation is still not corrected, it can be reported to the nearest office of the Ministry of Labour.

Remember, if you are asked to do something that you believe to be unsafe, or that you believe may harm you or someone else, you have the right to refuse to do the work.

If you are injured while at work, you should first get proper medical attention. This is the responsibility of the employer, and may take the form of first aid from a trained co-worker or require treatment at a hospital. If you have been injured at work and need more information, refer to the Workers’ Compensation section of this website.

Penalties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act  (OHSA)

The Stronger, Fairer Ontario Act become law on December 14, 2017. The new law has given the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development greater flexibility in the number of alleged violations (or “counts”) they can include when laying charges, and the Act also increases the penalties under the OHSA:

  • Maximum fines for corporations, per conviction is now $1.5 million
  • Maximum fines for individuals, per conviction is now $100,000, or a maximum of 12 months of jail time, or both.

In addition, the one (1) year limitation period for bringing charges has been extended to the latter of: the date that the alleged offence occurred, and the date the Ministry of Labour Inspector becomes aware of an alleged offence. For more information about health and safety in the workplace, contact the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development.

Federal employees

As of January 1, 2021, changes to rules relating to workplace violence, harassment, and sexual harassment in federal workplaces have changed. Policies in the federal government’s new Work Place Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations, and corresponding changes to the Canada Labour Code have been consolidated and broadened in Part II of the Code. The definition of workplace “violence and harassment” has been expanded to include:

“any action, conduct or comment, including of a sexual nature, that can reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or other physical or psychological injury or illness to an employee.”

As part of the changes, employers working in a federally regulated industry or workplace, should:

  • understand the definition of workplace harassment and violence
  • develop a workplace harassment and violence prevention policy with the policy committee, the workplace committee or health and safety representative
  • assess the risk of workplace harassment and violence
  • conduct employee harassment training to be completed by Jan. 1, 2022.

Visit the Employment and Social Development Canada website for more information.


Get help

A criminal record will appear on an employment police check and will affect your ability to get or keep a job. To erase your criminal record, learn more at Pardon Partners. It’s easier than you think.

If you have experienced workplace violence or harassment, you should contact a lawyer for legal help and assistance.

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