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Why is there no appetite for criminal health and safety charges?

After more than six years, and almost no use, what’s the point of having a corporate killing law on the books?

By Todd Humber (todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com)

The spring of 2004 looked like it was going to be a massive turning point in health and safety in Canada.

Bill C-45, otherwise known as the “corporate killing law,” became the law of the land and, with its threat of jail time for senior executives, signaled what many thought would be a sea change in occupational health and safety. (The law came in the wake of the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers in Nova Scotia.)

And yet, in the six years since, the law has gone virtually unused with only a handful of charges. Why? It’s not like workers aren’t dying on the job anymore.

More proof of the reluctance to lay criminal charges came in the wake of the Christmas eve 2009 accident in Toronto. Four construction workers were killed and another seriously injured when scaffolding at a high-rise apartment collapsed. But when the charges were laid (the news came out just this past weekend), Bill C-45 was again curiously silent.

The charges laid by the province are certainly serious — up to $17 million in fines have been laid against two companies, and jail time is a possibility for individual executives and supervisors. But all of the charges appear to be under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act according to published reports, not criminal charges under the Criminal Code envisioned in Bill C-45.

Bill C-45 is starting to look like that dusty old exercise bike in the corner — bought with the best of intentions, but neglected nonetheless.

Some argue police simply need more education on C-45, that they still don’t understand the law and how to use it. Others argue there is too much overlap between C-45 and provincial health and safety laws.

What do you think? Why aren’t authorities using their power to lay criminal charges in workplace health and safety incidents? Join the conversation by adding a comment.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. For more information, visit www.hrreporter.com.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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