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Step 2: Lead the Way

Note: This document does not constitute legal advice. To determine your rights and obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA or the Act) and its regulations, please contact your legal counsel or refer to the legislation.

Teamwork and the Internal Responsibility System (IRS)

People in successful workplaces understand that a safe and healthy workplace is a productive workplace. They also know that they have to work together to create and maintain a safe and healthy workplace. As you have seen, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) is very clear about the different roles of the employer, supervisor and worker, and how those roles cooperate to make a safe and healthy workplace. This is the Internal Responsibility System, or IRS as it’s commonly known.

Communication is a big part of the IRS in any workplace, and the ability to communicate effectively is an important skill for any supervisor. To communicate effectively, you need to be good at both listening and speaking. You need to be a leader as well as a supervisor. A leader adds to the supervisor’s basic role of overseeing the work by listening to the workers, trying to understand their point of view, supporting them when they need help, and always setting a good example.

As the person in the highest leadership position, the employer has the most important role in creating an effective Internal Responsibility System in the workplace. You need the support of the employer to carry out your supervisor duties, and the workers need to know that their supervisor and employer will listen to their concerns and work with them to recognize, assess and control hazards. In fact, the OHSA says workers have the legal right to expect that support.

You should inform the employer of any health and safety concern, even if you have the ability and authority to handle it yourself. Your employer may need to know about the problem in order to fulfill his or her duties.

The three rights of workers

The OHSA gives workers three important rights:

  • The right to know about workplace hazards and what to do about them
  • The right to participate in solving workplace health and safety problems
  • The right to refuse work that they believe is unsafe

As a supervisor, it’s important that you know and understand those three worker rights. They are at the heart of the OHSA and the Internal Responsibility System and they connect directly to your duties as a supervisor and those of the employer. Here’s how:

1. The right to know

It’s your job to tell the workers about any health or safety hazards and to show them how to work safely. This supports workers’ right to know about hazards to which they might be exposed. For example, the law says workers have to receive information and training on the chemicals or hazardous materials that are used, handled or stored at work. This information is available either on warning labels or information sheets. Sometimes you may also have to give the worker written instructions on how to do the work.

The employer supports the workers’ right to know by making sure they get:

  • Information about the hazards in the work they are doing.
  • Training to do the work in a healthy and safe way
  • Competent supervision to stay healthy and safe. That means the employer has made sure that you know how to do your job.

2. The right to participate

As a supervisor, you support the workers’ right to participate in health and safety by encouraging them to get involved. There are various ways to be involved in workplace health and safety such as asking questions, raising concerns and giving positive feedback. One of the most effective ways workers can participate in health and safety is by becoming a health and safety representative or a joint health and safety committee member.

Number of Workers Legislative Requirement
1 - 5There is no legislative requirement for a JHSC or a Health and Safety Representative. However, if your workplace uses designated substances, a JHSC is required.
6 - 19One Health and Safety representative, selected by the employees they represent, is required.
20 - 49A JHSC is required. The committee must have at least two (2) members.
50+A JHSC is required. The committee has to have at least four (4) members.

In most workplaces with 6 to 19 regularly employed workers, the Occupational Health and Safety Act makes the employer responsible for ensuring that the workers choose a health and safety representative. In most workplaces where there are 20 or more regularly employed workers, the OHSA says the employer is responsible for making sure a joint health and safety committee (JHSC) is set up. The committee has to have at least two people on it, and one of them has to be chosen by the workers. Workplaces with 50 or more regularly employed workers must have a JHSC with at least four people on it, with two of them chosen by workers. Generally, JHSCs must have a worker representative and an employer representative who are certified members. (The requirements for JHSCs do not apply to construction projects at which work is expected to last less than three months.)

The committee has many powers, including the power to identify workplace health and safety problems and recommend to the employer ways to solve problems and improve health and safety in the workplace. For example, a member of the committee who represents workers must regularly inspect the workplace. Information from these inspections is brought back to the committee. The committee then makes recommendations to the employer to improve health and safety. The employer has to respond to these recommendations within 21 days. Because the employer and the workers are represented on the committee, everybody has a role in recognizing, assessing and controlling hazards. More details are provided in the Ministry of Labour’s guide to JHSCs.

In smaller workplaces, the health and safety representative has a similar role in helping improve health and safety conditions. Their duties and powers, like those of a joint health and safety committee, include inspecting the workplace regularly and making recommendations to the employer about how to fix hazards and solve other health and safety problems.

Can you think of any other ways a supervisor can support the workers' right to participate in health and safety?

As a supervisor, you also support the workers' right to participate in health and safety by:

  • Encouraging them to speak up and listening to their concerns
  • Doing what's necessary -- often with the employer's help -- to control the hazards that they identify
  • Acknowledging their efforts to make the workplace safer and healthier

It's important to know that the OHSA strictly forbids the employer or a supervisor from firing, disciplining or even threatening a worker for doing what the OHSA expects them to do. This includes workers reporting hazards to you or asking you or the employer to do what the OHSA expects you or the employer to do.

3. The right to refuse

The third right of workers in the OHSA is the right to refuse to do work that they have reason to believe is unsafe for them or another worker. As a supervisor, you respect that right by taking “every precaution reasonable” in the circumstances to protect workers and by complying with the process for work refusals specified in the Act. When a worker comes to tell you that he or she is refusing to do particular work because it is likely to endanger him or herself, you must look into the worker’s concerns and do everything you can to help the employer address them. Most of the time, the employer or you will be able to solve the problem with the worker’s health and safety representative or JHSC member. But if you can’t agree on how to solve it and the worker still feels the work is unsafe, a Ministry of Labour inspector will be called in to investigate.

There is a detailed description of the work refusal process, and the steps to take, in the Ministry of Labour’s Guide to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Supervisors are also workers. As a worker, you too may exercise the right to refuse unsafe work in the circumstances specified in the OHSA. As we saw earlier, the OHSA prohibits the employer from reprising against a worker for such things as complying with the OHSA or seeking its enforcement.

Together, the OHS duties support a strong internal responsibility system in the workplace. Different people have different roles or positions, but they all have the same goal. As a supervisor, you can be a leader in making your workplace safer and healthier, but you can’t do it alone.

Step 2 Quiz

Before we move on to Step 3, here's a true-or-false quiz.

TRUE or FALSE?

  1. The effectiveness of the Internal Responsibility System in any workplace depends on how effectively the employer, supervisor and workers cooperate to make a safe and healthy workplace.
  2. As a supervisor, you alone are responsible for making sure the workers you supervise are safe.
  3. The three basic rights of workers in the OHSA are the right to know about hazards, the right to participate in health and safety activities, and the right to refuse work that they believe is dangerous to themselves or others.
  4. As a supervisor, you have the right to refuse to do work that you believe is dangerous to yourself or others.
  5. The main purpose of the various duties and rights in the OHSA is to create a cooperative approach by everyone in the workplace to make it safer and healthier.

Answers to Step 2 Quiz

  1. True.
  2. False. You have the right to expect the support of the employer in your efforts to make the workplace safer and healthier. In fact, the employer has many of the same health and safety duties as you.
  3. True.
  4. True. Supervisors are also workers, which means you have the right to refuse work that you believe is dangerous to yourself or others.
  5. True.

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