Changes to Public Health Policy and School Safety
Alberta premier Jason Kenney has announced that effective Sunday, February 13, 2022, at 11:59 pm, the province will no longer require masking for children and youth in schools or for Albertans aged 12 and under in any setting. The target date for the second phase of the government’s plan is March 1, when the province plans to remove the remaining restrictions, including the indoor mask mandate, work-from-home requirements, remaining capacity limits, limits on social gatherings and screening for youth activities.
The abrupt changes during the latest COVID-19 provincial update have left Alberta teachers with many questions about the safety of their workplaces and their employers’ responsibilities. Here are some key points of information:
· School divisions are legally able to maintain a mask mandate; however, even if they maintain the mandate, divisions cannot refuse entry or access to students because of their individual and personal choice not to wear a mask.
· Amendments made to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS Act) in December 2021 significantly changed the concept of dangerous work and the right to refuse dangerous work (section 17 of the OHS Act). Currently, the OHS Act enables workers to refuse work only if they reasonably believe that there is an undue hazard at the work site or that particular work poses an undue hazard to themselves or others.
o In this section of the OHS Act, “undue hazard” in relation to any occupation includes a hazard that poses a serious and immediate threat to the health and safety of a person.
o The act provides examples of undue hazards, such as
sudden infrastructure collapses that result in an unsafe physical environment or
a danger that would normally stop work, such as broken or damaged tools/equipment, or a gas leak.
· An undue hazard is a serious and immediate threat to health and safety that the refusing worker actually observes or experiences at their work site.
· In refusing the work, in s 17(3) of the OHS Act, the worker needs to ensure, as far as it is reasonable to do so, that the refusal does not endanger the health and safety of any other person. This could create a challenge for a teacher refusing the work and its impact on the students.
General health and safety concerns are not dealt with under the work refusal process, as they are not considered undue hazards. While a respiratory virus can be serious, it can be open to interpretation as to whether a respiratory illness is seen as a serious and immediate threat, particularly in the context of the experience gained with COVID-19. This is where the hazard assessment and controls come into play. A possible avenue to discuss the controls in place and to address potential refusals to perform work based on concerns related to coronavirus could be to work with the joint health and safety committee. Employers must work with the committee in responding to concerns.
What Can Teachers Do?
Alberta teachers can raise concerns about their work environment if they reasonably believe there is an “undue hazard.” They need to do this promptly and with their supervisor, who is likely the principal or the designated person on the health and safety committee.
Teachers can also reach out to their local and the health and safety committee and request that masking be discussed. Even with the changes announced by the Government of Alberta, employers are still required to conduct hazard assessments and use the suite of controls, which include
1. engineering controls—ventilation and physical barriers;
2. administrative controls—training, hand hygiene, physical distancing and so on; and
3. personal protective equipment (PPE).
The abrupt changes during the latest COVID-19 provincial update have left Alberta teachers with many questions about the safety of their workplaces and their employers’ responsibilities. Teachers can access more information by calling Teacher Employment Services at 1‑800‑232‑7208. #WEAREATA