The right to a safe workplace


Labour day. The last gasp of summer. One last time to get out to the lake.

For most people, this is what Labour day is all about. But the roots of Labour day are tied up with the idea of worker’s rights.

In honour of the workers movement, Labour Day was introduced in Canada in 1872, a year when marches and gatherings were held in Ottawa and Toronto.

In Europe, the festivities of May Day have been combined with Labour Day celebrations since 1889. This spring festival was celebrated for some time in Canada, but the desire for a long weekend at the end of the summer led Parliament to proclaim the fall Labour Day in 1894.

The first Labour Day in the United States was celebrated on September 5, 1882, in New York. An initiative of the Central Labor Union, the idea was quickly adopted by other union organizations and, in 1885, was celebrated in many industrial centres.

New York City granted the first official recognition of this day by municipal ordinances in 1885 and 1886, and they were integrated into the laws of New York State shortly thereafter. Today, Labour Day no longer has any particular political significance.

In perpetual transition, work environments are much different than they were ten, thirty, one hundred years ago… Labour and union battles have been successful. However, what will the workplace be like for future generations? Any way we choose to leave it for them!

A safe workplace doesn’t happen all by itself. That’s why there are laws in Canada to ensure that employees and employers protect themselves in the workplace. There are many rights and duties that go along with occupational health and safety, so that everyone has a role to play in making it happen.

Employees have the right to know about job-related hazards, and to be educated on how these hazards can affect them. Often this can involve health and safety training.

Employers must provide a safe workplace and protective equipment, but also inform employees how to handle hazardous materials and how to react in an emergency. Employers must also provide a health and safety committee or a representative.

Employees should also identify and report unsafe practices and conditions at the job site, first to the employer, and if the situation doesn’t improve, also to the workplace committee or the health and safety representative. If employees are asked to do something that endangers themselves or others, or to use or operate unsafe equipment or tools, they have the right to refuse to do this work.

Certain criteria must be met, however. The employee must be reasonably sure that the work is dangerous, the dangerous situation is not a normal condition of employment, and refusal will not put the life, health or safety of another person at risk.

There are specific procedures that are important to follow in any refusal to work. Questions about this can be directed to the Labour Program office at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, who also get involved in resolving disputes about what is dangerous. Most importantly, the right to refuse dangerous work shouldn’t be abused—it’s there to protect employees.

We’ve come so far, but there is still work to be done.

Our children are the most vulnerable to workplace accidents and we must focus on prevention.

Let’s light a bonfire in praise of mandatory education and the abolishment of child labour. However, we cannot ignore the fact that there are still too many young Canadians quitting high school, and must continue to look for ways to strengthen their motivation with our support.

Let’s raise a glass to cheer the many social programs that guarantee access to essential services for everyone and offer protection during difficult periods. We also know that poverty remains the fate of many people and we must nurture solidarity.

Let’s celebrate Canada’s prosperity, while keeping in mind the high unemployment rate and precarious job market of our young. The young workers of tomorrow to enjoy a work environment that is increasingly more stimulating and fulfilling, let us take pride in our past accomplishments and continue building for the future!