Occupational Health and Safety Check-up: What Employers Need to Know

Katie Barnstead s2As an employer, it’s important to understand your obligations and duties with respect to occupational health and safety, as well as the rights of your employees. Here’s what to think about in performing a “self check-up” to ensure your organization is staying on top of its occupational health and safety (“OHS”) obligations:

1) Which Act applies to your organization?

Canada has both provincial and federal occupational health and safety legislation. The first step in your self check-up is knowing whether your workplace is federally or provincially regulated. Federally regulated industries such as aviation, broadcasting, banking, and the postal system are covered by the Canada Labour Code. If a business is not engaged in a federally regulated industry, then it is covered by the OHS legislation of the province in which it operates. For example, in Nova Scotia this is the Nova Scotia Occupational Health & Safety Act.

2) Understanding the “Internal Responsibility System”

The Internal Responsibility System (“IRS”) is the underlying philosophy of occupational health and safety legislation in Canada. Internal responsibility means that no matter what role a person has in an organization, everyone has a role in workplace health and safety. Whether you’re an employer or an employee, each person is responsible for their own safety and the safety of everyone else in the workplace.

The IRS system holds employers responsible for determining their own steps to ensure the health and safety of all employees rather than prescribing specific steps for compliance. This gives employers the flexibility to create OHS procedures that are appropriate for their workplaces, but at the same time without specific requirements it can be challenging for employers to know when they have met their OHS requirements.

3) Know your obligations as an employer

Under the Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have a number of duties and obligations. These duties and obligations include, but are not limited to:

  • Taking every reasonable precaution to ensure the health and safety of persons at or near the workplace;
  • Providing and maintaining equipment; and
  • Providing information, instruction, and training as are necessary to the health and safety of employees and that ensures all employees are familiar with any potential health or safety hazards in the workplace.

Depending on the size of an organization, some employers may have additional obligations:

  • Employers with more than 5 employees are required to have an Occupational Health and Safety Policy.
  • Employers with more than 20 employees must have an Occupational Health and Safety Program and a Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (“JOHSC”).
  • Employers with more than 4 employees that do not have a JOHSC must have designated Health and Safety Representatives.

4) Know your employees’ rights

Right to Know – Employees have the right to know information about issues that affect employee health and safety. Employers must always inform employees when they become aware of any issues that could affect employee health and safety at a workplace. The right to know can also extend into other areas such as the result an investigation into a workplace accident.

Right to Refuse – An employee has the right to refuse to do any task at the workplace where the employee has reasonable grounds to believe that the act is likely to endanger the health or safety of the employee of or any other person. Where an employee engages the right to refuse work, the employer must take the steps necessary to rectify the issue. The employer may provide an alternate work assignment, but whether or not the employee is given alternate work the employer must continue to pay the employee while the issue that caused the refusal is rectified. The employee must accept an alternative work assignment (provided the employee does not have reasonable grounds to refuse the alternate work assignment for health and safety reasons or is not unable to work for other reasons).

Right to Participate – Employees have the right to participate in the selection of Joint Occupation Health and Safety Committees and the selection of their Health and Safety Representatives, as well as the right to participate in reporting unsafe working conditions and investigations into a refusal to work.

5) Occupational health and safety matters in all workplaces

Occupational health and safety matters in all workplaces, not only ones that are obviously safety-sensitive. For example, every workplace needs appropriate first aid and fire safety procedures. Harassment and workplace violence are also occupational health and safety risks that employers have an obligation to address. And when thinking about occupational health and safety risks in an office or service environment specifically, consider factors like the potential for repetitive stress injuries, safe storage of heavy objects, and environmental factors like air quality and sanitation standards. 

Ensuring that a workplace is safe is an important responsibility. Understanding your duties and obligations as an employer and the rights of your employees is the first step in taking a proactive approach to maintaining a safe and happy workplace for everyone.


Do you have questions about occupational health and safety procedures in your workplace? 

Katie Barnstead is an associate at Barteaux Durnford. Her practice includes all aspects of labour and employment law, including litigation, human rights matters, arbitrations, and drafting employment agreements and workplace policies.

Barteaux Durnford is Atlantic Canada’s only homegrown management-side labour and employment law boutique and is recognized by Canadian Lawyer as one of the Top 10 Labour and Employment Boutiques of 2018-19. We help employers solve workplace issues so they can get on with business.

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