Autonomy and training standards among WHSC concerns
A much anticipated Expert Panel report reviewing Ontario’s health and safety prevention and enforcement systems has the potential to raise the bar considerably, especially if comprehensive new training standards are established. Some are concerned however the newly envisioned prevention system may threaten Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) autonomy and compromise the quality of training they’re used to providing.
Dave Killham, WHSC executive director, who will be meeting with Ministry of Labour (MOL) officials in the coming weeks explained, “Who doesn’t support more training for workers and supervisors? But as is often the case, the devil is in the details. If we can provide training that helps the workplace parties better exercise their legal rights and duties, if we can achieve legitimate outcomes, ones that meet the standards workers and their representatives hold sacred, then it will be a huge victory for workers.”
The Panel Report was released in mid-December and was touted as the most comprehensive review of the system in more than 30 years. The Panel was established by the MOL on the heels of a tragic scaffolding incident that took the lives of four Toronto-area construction workers and seriously injured another. Chaired by former senior civil servant, Tony Dean, the 10-member Panel was comprised of representatives from labour, employers and the academic community. Staff from the system’s partner organizations, including WHSC and the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), also participated through working groups to research and develop options for the Panel’s consideration.
The Expert Panel held extensive meetings with stakeholders and the public across the province, receiving more than 400 submissions. Here are some of the key Panel recommendations:
Prevention System Oversight
Entry level awareness training for workers and supervisors
Entry level training for construction workers
Fall protection training for workers working at heights
Training for health and safety representatives in smaller workplaces
Joint Health and Safety Committees
Creation of a new prevention organization within the MOL led by a Chief Prevention Officer (CPO) who will report directly to the Minister of Labour
CPO will have authority to oversee: development and measurement of key performance indicators; development of training standards; and accreditation and oversight of all Health and Safety Associations (including the WHSC and OHCOW)
Appointment of competency-based, multi-stakeholder Prevention Council to provide input and advice to the CPO
JHSC co-chair right to submit recommendations to employer where issue repeatedly unresolved
Develop a fast-track process for resolving reprisal complaints under the Act
Encourage more proactive inspections of workplaces likely to employ vulnerable workers
Broaden outreach efforts to reach vulnerable worker communities
Workers and their representatives have long fought for additional mandatory training, especially for the general workforce and for at risk new job entrants. If real training is to happen though much more work remains. The report refers to the proposed entry level training as “a brief primer” and “information” suggesting it could be delivered by DVD or smartphone, raising questions about whether workers and supervisors will actually be trained or just be provided information.
Ongoing concerns about poor compliance with existing Certification and WHMIS training requirements have led Killham and others to call for more robust training standards. “Let’s learn from recent history. Standards can clarify issues related to training curriculum, delivery methods and program evaluation. Too many Ontario workplaces continue to receive training that fails them on two fronts. Firstly, it fails to provide workers with adequate knowledge about their rights and the hazards of the job. Secondly, it may not comply with legal requirements, leaving employers vulnerable to MOL orders and fines.”
Unfortunately, the ability of WHSC to influence these kinds of decisions remains uncertain. In anticipation of the Panel report, Labour delivered a clear call for WHSC and OHCOW autonomy to Panel chair, Tony Dean, at a joint conference of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) and Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups (ONIWG) last November. Conference delegates expressed serious concerns about government attempts to usurp the governance of the two worker organizations. Both currently take direction from labour-led boards and emphasize a hazard-based approach to occupational health and safety prevention. The WHSC and OHCOW uniquely address key worker issues like occupational disease, workplace stress, full worker participation and employer responsibility in workplace health and safety matters and the ineffectiveness of victim-blaming Behaviour-Based Safety programs.
Immediately following the OFL/ONIWG conference several labour leaders including: Wayne Fraser, District Six director, United Steelworkers; Wayne Hanley, national president, United Food and Commercial Workers Canada; and Ken Lewenza, president, Canadian Auto Workers, also wrote the Minister of Labour in support of WHSC and OHCOW autonomy and the unique training, information, clinical and consulting services they provide workers and their representatives. The WHSC Board of Directors delivered a similarly unanimous message to Dean prior to the release of his report.
All these messages were patently ignored. While the report acknowledges “sector-specific sensitivity” of services provided by employer Safe Work Associations, nowhere does it acknowledge the unique character of worker-oriented services provided by the WHSC and OHCOW. Instead the Panel report recommended “a more integrated, efficient and accountable system,” led by a Chief Prevention Officer. The system, according to the report, should adopt “a single, integrated, strategic plan with one set of priorities.” Further, the report recommends all Chief Executive Officers of Health and Safety Associations “report directly to the Chief Prevention Executive.”
A mid this uncertainty Killham wants to reassure Ontario workers and employers. They can continue to rely upon one thing: the WHSC’s commitment to meet and exceed any and all new legal training requirements the government may impose. WHSC is well positioned by developing a half-day awareness program for workers and already offers a one-day course for supervisors and a two-day course geared to health and safety representatives. Adds Killham, “With three decades of experience as a leading training provider the WHSC is ideally suited to help shape the direction and priorities of the new prevention system. We will insist on doing the job we were and are entrusted to do, to provide and facilitate the best occupational health and safety training possible.”