Would you let your kids play football? (Editor's Notes)

IS it time to treat OHS on the federal level?
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/01/2016

Workplace safety rules are complicated but they all have the same laudable goal: To ensure every employee goes home safe at the end of the day.

The complicated regime of safety regulations in Canada was thrust into the spotlight last month when a British Columbia Supreme Court justice tossed out charges against Seattle Environmental Consulting, a firm that was slapped with 237 violation notices by WorkSafeBC between 2007 and 2012. It was also fined more than $200,000.

The reason? Justice George Macintosh said an order must be “unambiguous” for a court to punish someone. He bemoaned the fact it was “impossible” for the owners of the company to know whether they were in contempt of court.

That’s a shocking decision, one that we delved into in one of the cover stories in this issue of Canadian HR Reporter. Boil it all down and what you’re left with is a simple case of ignorance of the law being an excuse. That’s certainly not acceptable when it comes to the criminal code, and it shouldn’t be acceptable when it comes to OHS laws.

Ignorance can’t be an excuse 

But what if you’re in an industry that is known to be hazardous? If you haven’t seen the film Concussion starring Will Smith, you really should. It’s a fascinating look at the world of professional football and the toll it takes on the human body, particularly the head. It profiles the story of Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of Mike Webster, a hall of fame player who died in 2002.

The National Football League (NFL) buried its head in the sand for decades as evidence of the link between many blows to the head and CTE mounted. For the first time last month, a NFL executive actually acknowledged a fact that common sense says is true: Football is a very hazardous workplace.

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice-president for health and safety, agreed that research showed a correlation between hits in football and CTE: “Certainly, yes.” Ann McKee, a Boston University neuropathologist, has found evidence of CTE in 90 former players. (The disease can only be diagnosed with certainty after death.)

In 2015, there were 271 diagnosed concussions in the NFL. So maybe it’s not surprising Omalu, in an interview with Time magazine, said he think more than 90 per cent of football players suffer from CTE.

“I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative,” he said.

That’s scary. I love football — I’ve been a fan since my dad took me to my first Detroit Lions game in 1979. As a seven-year-old, I watched my beloved Lions lose 28-10 to the Miami Dolphins. But I loved the game, the passion of the players and the roar of the crowd. I was hooked.

But now I look at the game in a much different light. And I understand why an increasing number of players are choosing to walk away at a young age. Chris Borland was just 24 when he stepped away from the San Francisco 49ers because of concerns over concussions. Football, and its millions of dollars and fame, weren’t “worth the risk,” he said.

I don’t have children but if I did, I wouldn’t let them play football any more than I would let them toss asbestos around. But what do you do if you’re the NFL, a $12-billion empire built on a sport that is known to injure players? There can only be so many rule changes — players tackling each other, bashing into each other at high speed, is going to cause serious injuries. 

The same can be said of hockey, albeit to a lesser degree. And it’s not just sports — many occupations are notoriously hazardous. Logging is the most dangerous occupation in Canada. Fishers, pilots and roofers also face high rates of injury and death.

So what do we do? The NFL isn’t going to shut its doors. It will try and make the sport somewhat safer, but perhaps it’s time to ditch pee wee football and pack away the shoulder pads in our high schools. That won’t be a popular sentiment but evidence is mounting that football is incredibly dangerous and no rule changes could possibly make it safe enough for children.

What we can do right now is ensure the rules and regulations are clear and concise. We have one judge in B.C. who says that province’s rules are unclear and confusing. That’s not good.

Perhaps it’s time to break down the provincial barriers and treat OHS on the federal level like we do with the criminal code. The health and safety of workers is far too important for a confusing patchwork of laws. One common, national code for all employers to follow would be a step in the right direction.

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