Workers Health & Safety Centre

Report suggests Federal government actions placing worker health at risk

Report suggests Federal government actions placing worker health at risk
A significant reduction in health and safety officers (HSOs) is just one of many issues placing federally-regulated workers in harm’s way, according to a recent report. 
In 2005, 151 health and safety officers (HSOs) oversaw federally-regulated workplaces across Canada. However, a report published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), suggests as few as 67 officers are now in place. 
The Federal government claims they currently have 90 HSOs employed by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) Labour program. In either case, coupled with the expansion of employment in the federal sector in the past ten years, workloads for HSOs have increased somewhere between 97 and 165 percent, estimates the CCPA.  

The CCPA report entitled Waiting to happen: Why we need major changes to the health and safety regime in federally regulated workplaces also highlights a system of inspection that is void of a proactive strategy to make regular workplace visits across all sectors. Instead, they focus mainly on high risk sectors. As a result, the CCPA reports, workplaces employing almost 40 per cent of federal workers will not see an inspector over the next three years unless an inspector is asked to investigate a complaint, work refusal, critical injury or the like.  
“Inspection is absent or so highly limited it cannot create the safe workplace environment that is surely everybody’s goal and wish,” says John Anderson who authored the report.  
The report examined health and safety in the federal jurisdiction between 2007 and 2012 but also highlights changes to the Canada Labour Code (the Code) in 2013 that it concludes has left “the system much diminished in its regulatory oversight powers.”
Among these changes, the CCPA report criticizes narrowing the definition of danger which many believe will limit a workers right to refuse. Essentially this definition has moved from one that includes a potential hazard to a narrower view of an imminent or serious threat. Of specific concern is the removal of references to illness, chronic illness, disease and damage to the reproductive system in this new definition.
In light of the thousands of Canadians who die annually as a result of work-related illness and disease and a growing recognition of hazard exposure implications on reproductive health, the concern is significant.

The CCPA report highlights additional examples of changes to the Code they, and others, believe will negatively impact workplace safety and health. Examples include:
  • changes to the work refusal process and the investigation (or lack thereof) of continuing work refusals,
  • the transfer of investigation powers, duties and function from specifically-trained health and safety officers to the Minister of Labour (who may or may not delegate this power back to these officers or another designate); and
  • changes that allow the Minister of Labour to administer and enforce the Code electronically including virtual investigations so as to avoid an HSO visit to a workplace.

Another area of concern to the CCPA is the elimination of health and safety oversight committees representing employers, worker representatives and government. Representatives of these tripartite bodies were selected by stakeholders. These committees have been replaced by a new Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee with members appointed by government.
The report also points out the fact rail is excluded as a sector for review by this new committee as it was not considered high risk. Considering the 2013 Lac Mègantic, Quebec rail disaster that resulted in 47 deaths, many would beg to differ.  
“The overall situation is a recipe for both potential dangerous occupational health and safety issues and injuries,” says Anderson.
The CCPA report concludes by calling for major and immediate changes in how occupational health and safety works in federally-regulated industries. These recommendations range from hiring more HSOs and providing them with comprehensive training to regularly inspecting all workplaces and repealing the 2013 changes to the Code.  
For our part, the WHSC offers extensive training for workplaces governed by federal health and safety law. These include workplaces in sectors with national scope—generally those crossing provincial and/or national boundaries. Examples include air, water, road and rail transport, banking, broadcasting, energy and mining, grain elevators and federal public service.
The WHSC has also developed additional resources designed to give all workplace parties in federally-regulated workplaces a better understanding of the 2013 amendments to the right to refuse provisions in the Code
Want to read the full CCPA report?
Want read more about the 2013 amendments to the Code?
Want to know about WHSC health and safety training for workplaces governed by federal health and safety law? Call: 1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a training service representative.