Ottawa’s budget cuts are undermining the health and safety of federally regulated workplaces, according to a study.
Waiting to Happen, the study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), said a lack of resources — including funding and safety inspection staff — are putting nearly 1.2 million workers in the federal government at risk.
In 2005, for instance, there were 151 inspectors overseeing health and safety in federally regulated sectors (such as banking, communications, broadcasting, postal, road, air and rail transportation and government). Today, there are somewhere between 67 and 100.
“The overall situation is a recipe for both potentially dangerous occupational health and safety issues and injuries,” said John Anderson, the CCPA researcher who wrote the 60-page paper. “Inspection is absent or so highly limited it cannot create the safe workplace environment that is surely everybody’s goal and wish.”
The result is federal workplaces are becoming less safe than previous years, compared to other provinces, according to the report. In the 12 years of data (up until 2013), 684 employees died as a result of a workplace injury — an average of 57 deaths per year. In 2013 alone, there were 58 fatalities.
Budget cuts and employment growth in the federal sector have all but diminished health and safety resources, said Anderson.
“The ratio of workers to inspectors in the federally regulated sector has therefore increased substantially… With this kind of ratio, it is physically impossible for inspectors to do the regular inspection work required,” he said. “Human resources are so strained that when multiple crises happen at the same time, inspectors have to be brought in from other regions.”
However, according to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the current number of active health and safety officers is 92, and the department said it plans to up that number to 100 “in the near future.”
“The number of health and safety officers may fluctuate from year to year as a result of normal turnover, such as retirements and departures,” said a spokesperson for the department, adding that explicitly includes enforcers of part two of the Canada Labour Code. “(Their) mandate is to help prevent accidents, encourage compliance and improve overall health and safety in federally regulated workplaces across Canada.”
Also, there are 162 trained officers for specific federal transportation sectors such as rail, aviation and marine, as well as oil and gas, which fall under the purview of Transport Canada and the National Energy Board, ESDC said.
But a lack of presence in terms of inspectors tends to lead to a lack of urgency, and too often employers let occupational safety simmer on the backburner, said Denis St-Jean, national health and safety officer at the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).
“The federal inspectors are almost like a myth,” said St-Jean, adding the provinces are much better at following up on health and safety legislation. For instance, only 60 per cent of employers regularly send in the department’s required reports — rendering the reporting system a voluntary one, he said.
“When employers know something like this, the incentive to do prevention, the incentive to actually invest in health and safety, in training, in awareness sessions, in how to manage the risk — the business case is just that much more difficult to do,” he said.
“You need resources, you need a presence in the workplace.”
The report made 10 recommendations, including raising staffing levels to 2005 levels when there were 151 inspectors. That means attracting and retaining staffers, which should be done by fixing the pay gap. Currently, health and safety officers make $3,000 less than their Transport Canada counterparts, and $10,000 less than their provincial peers in Ontario, according to the CCPA.
Other recommendations include repealing changes to the Canada Labour Code that came about in 2013, particularly bolstering the role of officers and reaffirming the definition of “danger.”
The report also advised inspectors should conduct more field and followup inspections, targeting high-risk sectors through “unadvertised blitzes.” Improvements to training and data collection and transparency were also noted.
The report also urged strategies be developed to handle First Nations employers, with whom there exists no working relationship and where the health and safety situation has worsened since 2010, when fire inspectors were eliminated from Crown corporations, Aboriginal reserves and federal departments. CCPA also recommended bringing fire protection services back.
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