WHSC 2007 volunteer activists’ campaign
Working to fully implement the precautionary principle
Who among us hasn’t heard the phrases, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” or “better safe than sorry?” For volunteer health and safety activists however these words are more than empty clichés, they guide efforts to prevent workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths. Every day they put them to action by delivering occupational health and safety training to co-workers and others, identifying workplace hazards and recommending preventive measures, negotiating health and safety contract language, fighting for stronger health and safety laws and insisting upon tough and consistent enforcement. The Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) recognizes all of these contributions as part of its 12th Annual Volunteer Health and Safety Activist Campaign.
We take time to celebrate these accomplishments but worker representatives know better than most, their work is far from over, in fact, a new chapter has just begun. Earlier this year, just prior to his death, Justice Archie Campbell released the final 1,204-page SARS Commission Report. Among the report’s sweeping recommendations are calls for appropriate training of, and a more meaningful role for, workers and joint health and safety committees. The report also calls for training of senior management particularly in their roles and duties on the joint committee.
Perhaps the most significant of Campbell’s recommendations — which activists have long sought — is to enshrine the precautionary principle in health and safety law. Precaution is not an unfamiliar concept. The general duty clause in Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act
obliges employers to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.” The precautionary principle however would hold employers to a much higher standard of reasonableness. This principle states if an action or policy raises the threat of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures must be taken by the employer even if a cause and effect relationship is not fully established — in short, better safe than sorry.
This is a goal well worth pursuing says Dave Killham, WHSC executive director. “Universally implement the precautionary principle and we do more than better control respiratory diseases. This principle would fuel the drive for toxic use reduction or substitution, for instance.
“Our current health and safety laws are largely the result of similar struggles by a previous generation of workers. Today’s health and safety activists are more than equal to the challenge,” Killham adds.
More than 30 years ago activists fought to implement recommendations of the Ham Royal Commission, the result being the Act
’s three basic worker rights including the joint health and safety committee structure. More recently, workplace representatives have made many additional gains including: safety-engineered needles, reduced exposure limits for noise and comprehensive training for joint committee members, forklift operators and those working in confined spaces.
Volunteer activists profiled in this issue of At the Source
are among those making a difference. Read the following pages to learn how these five are attempting to secure safer, healthier workplaces and communities.
For its part, the WHSC supports all volunteer activists with high quality information and training resources. Says Killham, “Health and safety volunteers are on the front lines of this fundamental struggle to improve working conditions. We applaud their commitment to workers and we are proud to play a small part in preparing them for this most important role in the fight for lives.”
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically. In this context the proponent of the activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
Wingspread Declaration, 1998