Workers Health & Safety Centre

OUR lives, OUR Act, OUR power

<i>OUR</i> lives, <i>OUR Act</i>, <i>OUR</i> power

Highlights from 25 years of worker ACTivism

Even before most workers had the protection of the Occupational Health and Safety Act they fought to improve their working conditions.
For as long as the Act has existed the Workers Health and Safety Centre has supported workers in learning about workplace hazards and controls and in using their legal rights to seek solutions. As any adult educator knows, we learn best by doing. Health and safety activists learn by applying the Act. We invited activists to share a page out of their workplace experiences in hopes others will be encouraged to follow suit. 

Provision of Information
For some, information is power. Despite legislation governing designated substances and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, many workers still don’t have access to key information about workplace hazards. This is especially critical for joint health and safety committee (JHSC) members.
Peter Boyle, a member of the United Steelworkers of America Local 343, fought to be provided with an extensive employer audit of the workplace which included critical health and safety information. The report was made available to the JHSC who had access to read it but they could not take it away with them. 
Boyle pressed a MOL inspector to order the report be provided to the JHSC. On appeal by the employer, the Adjudicator sided with the union saying the Act envisions a significant degree of cooperation between the workplace parties for the protection of workers’ health and safety. Information was critical to JHSC functioning: “In order for the Committee to fulfill its responsibilities as set out in subs. 9(18) it needs access to information in a manner that is reasonable and meaningful.”
The report was of immediate help in addressing hazards and last year, 12 years after the decision, information contained in that same report helped Boyle establish a hearing loss claim for a fellow worker.
Boyle says this precedent setting case also allowed worker representatives of the former Occupational Disease Panel to access critical information from employers.
Ordering ergonomic improvements
Just a few years after the Act came into force Sheelagh MacDonald stood up for herself and her co-workers in refusing to do work she believed was causing them serious harm, including the heavy, awkward lifting of bins weighing up to 100 lbs.
Then a member of the United Electrical Workers, now a member of Canadian Auto Workers Local 544, MacDonald’s work refusal was the first of its kind on the issue of musculoskeletal injuries. Her work refusal was upheld, but more important, the MOL ordered the employer, under the general duty provisions of the Act (now 25(2)(h)), to modify certain workstations to reduce the need for awkward bending and stretching.
Says MacDonald, “From the health and safety training I had completed I knew what my rights were. Too many of us were suffering because of our work and it had to stop. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Similar types of orders are few and far between — another reason Ontario activists continue to press for the protection of a specific ergonomics regulation.
Monthly Inspections
Regular workplace inspections continue to be a contentious item, especially in multi-site workplaces. Under Section 9(26) a designated committee member can inspect the physical condition of the workplace at least once a month. Where this isn’t practical, the workplace must be inspected at least once a year, inspecting at least a part of the workplace each month (Section 9(27)).
Unable to reach consensus with the employer over an acceptable workplace inspection schedule, Walter Baumann, a member of the International Association of Firefighters Local 288, and other worker members of their multi-site joint health and safety committee did their homework to make the case for a reasonable inspection schedule. Each of the four worker members shared the task of monthly inspections in 20 separate fire halls. They estimated the average amount of time it took each month and recommended the task be assigned to one designated worker member.
When the Ministry of Labour was called to help reach an agreement this spring, the inspector issued an order for monthly inspections of each workplace based upon the reasonable schedule recommended by the workers.
Says Baumann, “We did our homework and made the case for monthly inspections. The inspector found our recommendation reasonable and practical. The provision is there to be used. This is a key right to help us identify and address hazards before someone gets hurt. Why settle for less than the Act provides.”
Protection from environmental tobacco smoke
Despite having a limited right to refuse, correctional officers at an Ontario jail succeeded in gaining protection against deadly environmental tobacco smoke.
Complaints and work refusals by Sault Ste. Marie jail guards led the Ministry of Labour to investigate indoor air quality at the facility. When no orders were issued the guards’ union, Ontario Public Service Employees Union, appealed. The adjudicator agreed the workers had reason to believe the levels of smoke were dangerous and could reasonably expect protection under the general duty provisions of the Act. The employer was ordered to reduce levels in the jail within two years to that of a non-smoking building.
A final agreement, negotiated at the Correctional Services provincial health and safety committee, saw the employer agree to prohibit smoking in the jail altogether and provided smoking cessation programs to inmates and workers alike. The directive was eventually rolled out across the province and applied to all correctional facilities.
These farsighted actions 10 years ago set the stage for smoke-free workplaces. Today other workers seek protection under a patchwork of municipal anti-smoking bylaws awaiting the Ontario governments delayed promise to ban smoking from workplaces altogether.
Supervisory Competency
Too often it takes a tragedy to bring about change. This was the case with the deadly outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Toronto last year. Among the victims were two members of the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) who contracted the disease while caring for patients.
Health and safety was of such concern to health care workers it warranted a separate day of hearings during last fall’s Campbell Commission into the SARS outbreak. ONA reported to the commission, as part of their joint submission with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, their members were imperiled during the SARS outbreak because hospitals either did not apply or did not know it was law to provide and ensure fit testing for personal protective equipment.
Since then ONA has pressed the Ministry of Labour to initiate proactive visits to acute care facilities to assess workplace health and safety.
ONA labour relations officer, Nancy Johnson, reports a recent visit to a Thunder Bay hospital by a Ministry of Labour health and safety inspector resulted in orders to train managers and supervisors in the Act and Regulations. The orders were issued under the Act’s general duty provisions 25(2)(h).