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Health and Safety: The ways human rights relate to a safe and inclusive workplace

Employers obligated to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace

December 15, 2023  By The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)

One might wonder, what do human rights have to do with workplace health and safety? 

Everyone in Canada has human rights that entitle them to equality, dignity, and freedom from discrimination in life and at work. Canadian employers also have legal and ethical obligations to promote diversity and inclusion in their workplaces, arising from various federal, provincial, and territorial legislations.

Employers’ obligation
Human rights legislation requires employers to build equality into workplace standards so that, as much as possible, the governing of the performance of work reflects all members of society. Employers and service providers have a legal obligation, called the duty to accommodate, to enable workers to participate fully in the workplace. This duty may include the need to adapt rules, policies, practices, or physical spaces that negatively impact individuals or groups based on one or more prohibited grounds of discrimination, including race or ethnicity.

The duty to accommodate may require treating someone differently to prevent discrimination, where treating everyone the same, or “equally,” would result in discrimination. For example, asking all job applicants to pass a written test may not be fair to a person with a visual or learning disability. In such cases, the duty to accommodate may require that alternative arrangements be made to ensure that a person or group can participate fully. Employers should also consider how conscious and unconscious bias factor into certain assumed required conditions of employment, such as credit and background checks. 


The Supreme Court of Canada has explained that the essence of true equality is to be treated according to one’s own merit, capabilities, and circumstances. True equality requires that differences be accommodated.

Regardless of policies that may exist in the workplace to prevent discrimination, instances may happen. Workers may not always understand that types of behaviour may be seen as discriminatory and psychologically unsafe – it’s important to provide education and training about what the appropriate actions are. Everyone in the workplace should be trained on how to recognize discrimination
and understand their duty to come forward when they see it happening. Workers experiencing discrimination need to know their concerns will be taken seriously and that they will not experience retaliation for coming forward.


Understanding legislation
There are several types of legislation that cover human rights and foster inclusive workplaces in Canada, including federal, provincial, and territorial human rights legislation, occupational health and safety legislation, common and human rights case law, and employment equity legislation.

Canadian employers must comply with applicable federal, provincial, and territorial human rights legislation, which prohibits discrimination based on protected grounds. For example, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and corresponding provincial or territorial human rights legislation, provide comprehensive protections against discrimination in employment. These legislations emphasize the importance of creating inclusive workplaces and outline the employers’ responsibilities in preventing discrimination. They also include the duty to accommodate.

Occupational health and safety legislation includes provisions that pertain to diversity and inclusion. Employers have a responsibility to maintain a safe and inclusive work environment that is free from harassment and violence. They must take steps to prevent and address incidents of harassment to ensure the well-being and safety of their workers.

In addition to statutory obligations, Canadian employers must consider common law principles and human rights case law when addressing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Courts have interpreted human rights legislation and established legal precedents that guide employers’ obligations in preventing discrimination, accommodating disabilities, and promoting inclusivity.

Canadian federal employers, and provincially regulated employers (who are covered by the Federal Contractors Program) are subject to federal employment equity legislation. These laws require designated employers to take proactive measures to address systemic barriers and promote representation of designated groups such as women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities in their workforce.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well being of workers in Canada by providing information, training, education, systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and injury and illness prevention.


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