Workplace Safety Obligations at the Port of Montreal: Hardhats Over Turbans
Despite the best intentions, it is not always possible to accommodate the religious practices of workers. In the case of Singh v. Montreal Gateway Terminals1, the Quebec Superior Court held that port terminal operator Montreal Gateway Terminals (“MGT”), because of its workplace safety obligations, was entitled to require Sikh truck drivers to wear a hardhat on top of their turban while in the workplace.
In July, 2005, MGT adopted a policy requiring all truck drivers operating within its port terminals to wear a hardhat. The plaintiffs, three truck drivers professing the Sikh religion, refused to do so. MGT attempted to accommodate them by having other operators supervise the loading of their trucks while the drivers remained inside the vehicle. That however proved to be unworkable and the truck drivers subsequently went to court seeking a declaratory judgment exempting them from complying with MGT’s obligatory hardhat policy.
The parties’ positions
The truck drivers alleged that they were being discriminated against based on their religion.
MGT maintained that there was no discrimination inherent in the situation. And even if there were, such discrimination would be justified. It also argued that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the “Canadian Charter”) did not apply in this instance.
The Court first of all ruled out the application of the Canadian Charter because the parties to the dispute were two private businesses. It found however that the Canadian Human Rights Act (the “CHRA”) and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (the “Quebec Charter”) did apply.
Insofar as the CHRA applied, the Court concluded that prima facie there was discrimination because it was impossible to reconcile the defendant’s safety policy with the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the policy was justified because it was:
- adopted for a purpose rationally connected to the requirements of the truck drivers’ employment duties;
- adopted for the legitimate objective of ensuring the safety of truck drivers;
- reasonably necessary, in light of the absence of any evidence of an effective accommodation measure, for the performance of the truck drivers’ employment duties.
Insofar as the Quebec Charter applied, the Court concluded that the infringement upon the employees’ freedom of religion was also justified, stating the following in that regard [TRANSLATION]:
“325. In any event, the beneficial effects of the Policy, i.e. ensuring the safety of persons working at the defendant’s terminals, outweigh the harmful effects on the defendants, which consist of wearing a hardhat for five or ten minutes while on foot within the precincts of the port for receipt or delivery purposes or, alternatively, their decision to no longer convey containers to and from the defendant’s terminals.”
In 1985 the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that wearing a hardhat was an appropriate occupational requirement for employees of Canadian National Railway Company, including an employee professing the Sikh religion2. In that case, employees were required to wear a hardhat at all times while at work, and not just for a few minutes per day. In the case we are dealing with here, what is interesting is that the validity of the policy was upheld in a situation where the plaintiffs were only required to wear a hardhat for five or ten minutes.
The burden of establishing that a measure is necessary to ensure the safety of persons in the workplace is on the employer. In this case, MGT was able to establish that despite the limited period of exposure to the risk and the absence of any record of head injuries suffered by truck drivers, the seriousness of the danger justified wearing a hardhat.
Moreover, the decision does not deal with the defendant’s employees, but with truck drivers employed by third parties. We believe however that the decision will set a precedent that will be applied to any persons having access to the workplace.
It is worth noting that the decision does not deal solely with the CHRA, but with the Quebec Charter as well, which makes it relevant for employers under either federal or provincial jurisdiction. It can thus be anticipated that the obligation for persons of the Sikh religion to wear a hardhat in the workplace where head injuries are a risk will be transposed to variety of situations, particularly in the construction industry.
We will continue to monitor the impacts of this decision for you, and what the result will be if it is appealed.
1 Singh v. Montreal Gateway Terminals Partnership, 2016 QCCS 4521
2 Bhinder v. CN,  2 SCR 561