Why aren’t more employers in jail? (Guest Commentary)

Westray Bill turns 10 but questions linger about its effectiveness
By Ralph Balbaa
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/20/2014

Ten years ago, Bill C-45 — commonly known as the Westray Bill and corporate killing law — became federal law. It was landmark legislation intended to improve health and safety for Canadian workers.

It amended the federal criminal code and enabled police and the Crown to criminally charge owners and officers of corporations if there was reckless disregard to the health and safety of employees.

The 1992 Westray mining accident that killed 26 miners in Nova Scotia was an unfortunate wakeup call for Canadian companies. It was a preventable accident and a reminder that safety needed to be, and must always be, the top priority at any worksite.

As we reflect on this accident and the anniversary of Bill C-45, it’s a wakeup call that still needs to be sounded — because, unfortunately, there have been hundreds of worksite deaths and accidents across the country since the enactment of this law.

Are Canadian workers safer? Yes, to some extent, because there is a mechanism to penalize negligent behaviour.

However, there are still many lingering questions about the enforcement of this legislation. In the past decade, charges have been laid in a handful of cases using Bill C-45.

Also, there are questions about whether the law’s spirit has reached smaller companies that may find it challenging to comply with current safety regulations and standards.

What Bill C-45 did was not only entrench workplace safety in the Criminal Code but it put the onus of safety on the employer or anyone of authority in the workplace.

The prospect of going to jail is indeed a scary one. However, the challenge a decade later appears to be enforcement. In the cases that included charges under Bill C-45, the resulting penalties have been plea-bargained fines — some very stiff sums of money — but individuals haven’t faced jail time. Is this a strong enough deterrent?

I question whether Bill C-45 has been enforced to an adequate degree. I would urge the federal government and the Crown to reflect on what has been accomplished since the bill’s inception.

In your opinion, has it been successful? Are there measurements in place to determine how far we have come? Are the root causes of these accidents and deaths being addressed to avoid more incidents in the future?

I hope this debate and discussion will resonate among all parties and result in greater awareness and implementation of workplace safety.

Personally, I believe and have seen that the spirit of Bill C-45 has been better reflected in larger companies. This is likely due to the fact they have more established safety practices and resources to implement workplace safety.

However, my hope is smaller companies will take notice. They may think the cost to implement safety measures is too much or that safety standards may impede production. Often, the main hindrance to safety can be a combination of ignorance, lack of experience and the perceived cost of implementation.

But the cost to ensure employees have a safe workplace is very small compared to the emotional and financial burdens of injury or death. It is likely cheaper to proactively invest in maintaining the most current safety standards, such as enacting proper machine guarding, than having to take action after the fact — be it in legal fees, insurance costs or lost time for operations. In some cases, we have designed measures in which implementing up-to-date safety standards can even create greater operational efficiency.

Safety steps

What can companies and their owners do? First, it’s always good to be reminded that training is possibly the single most important step to safety. There must be proper training for workers and supervisors about how to operate and maintain safe sites, machines and tools. Managers and supervisors must be given the resources and responsibility to report and remedy situations on the ground.

Workers need to understand the risks of their work and how to deal with them. There must be clear communications from all parties about the work that is being done and the hazards being minimized or eliminated.

Secondly, owners, managers and supervisors need to recognize current safety standards and implement them wherever possible. Safety planning and reviews are essential to ensure a site or machine is safe for operation, but these do not guarantee continued safety.

Maintaining safety is a constant and ongoing challenge. Companies can consult provincial inspectors and outside safety experts and engineers to ensure compliance but, ultimately, owners and employers need to exercise the due diligence required for safety.

It goes without saying — workplace accidents and death are tragic and costly. But they are often preventable too. In the spirit of Bill C-45, my hope is we continue the dialogue surrounding safety and keep it front-of-mind whenever we go to work.

Safety shouldn’t just be a box we check off and we shouldn’t have another unfortunate wakeup call.

Ralph Balbaa is president of Mississauga, Ont.-based HITE Engineering, a firm specializing in industrial and construction safety, and forensic engineering. For more information visit www.hite.ca.

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *