Monday, July 4, 2011

Research: The Right to Refuse

Gary Gray has published a new article in Droit et société investigating the right to refuse unsafe work from an ethnographic perspective. Gray's work usually provides a compelling read and "Constraints to upholding workplace safety laws and regulations within organization" is no different.

By examining the way in which workers respond to being required to perform unsafe work, Gray's research provides evidence that the right to refuse unsafe work is a weak right and must be understood in the context of a worker's position and organizational practices.

Among his conclusions are that workers will often choose informal means of resisting unsafe work (in order to minimize confrontation) as opposed to outright refusals of work. Similarly, employers will often employ internal strategies designed to pressure workers up to the point of a refusal (in the hopes that they will knuckle under) and then stop, in order to avoid triggering external enforcement.

These behaviours make it difficult to "see" instances where refusals of unsafe work are warranted and leave hazards unabated. In one of Gray's more disturbing anecdotes, his resistance to perform work (entailing bypassing lockout procedures and removing guarding) resulted in the supervisor agreeing not to push the issue with him and then recruiting an inexperienced summer student to do that (unsafe) job the next day.

There is significantly more to this paper, including a discussion of how ticketing of employees interacts with internal safety practices to disadvantage workers. Overall, this is a useful corrective to the "blaming the worker" vibe that is permeating Alberta OHS today.

-- Bob Barnetson

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