In August, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that she will not grant an exemption to permit Sikh motorcycle riders to wear turbans instead of helmets. The reason for this – safety.
This decision is an example of the conflict between religious accommodation and safety. This conflict can occur in the workplace forcing employees to choose between their religion and their employment.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides Canadians with the right to freedom of religion while the Ontario Human Rights Code protects against discrimination in employment on the basis of creed (a system of faith including belief and observance). To comply with the Code employers must accommodate an employee’s religious needs to the point of ‘undue hardship’. In some situations, undue hardship could include safety concerns.
For example, the issue of safety and Sikh turbans was previously raised before the Supreme Court of Canada. In Bhinder v. CN,  2 SCR 561 http://canlii.ca/t/1ftwt, the employer (CN) had introduced a new policy that employees were required to wear a hard hat at a particular worksite. Bhinder refused because his religion required him to wear the turban. The Supreme Court held that wearing a hard-hat was a bona fide occupational requirement – that it was a true necessity of the job – for safety reasons. Therefore, Bhinder’s religious needs were not accommodated.
However, that in many cases it will be difficult for an employer to meet the undue hardship test and most employees will be entitled to religious accommodation. Where a workplace rule discriminates against an employee on the basis of religion, directly or indirectly, it will only be upheld if it is a true occupational requirement. Even where this is the case, employers still must consider whether the employee affected can be accommodated. We encourage employees who are required to perform duties or meet schedules which conflict with their religious obligations, to speak to a human rights lawyer.
For more information about human rights, see here.
If you have experienced discrimination at work because of religious requirements or have been denied accommodation that you require for religious reasons, please contact us at [email protected] or 1-888-640-1728 (toll free) or 647-633-9894 (within the GTA).
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