On Dec. 24, 2009, four migrant workers fell 13 stories to their death when the scaffolding they were working on collapsed in Toronto. A fifth worker, who had been using a proper body harness, survived but suffered a broken spine and fractured both legs.
Following seven months of investigation, numerous charges were laid carrying fines up to $500,000 for each corporate charge, $25,000 for each individual named and up to 12 months of prison time for each allegation. The charges included four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.
This tragic incident gave rise to the Expert Panel on Ontario Occupational Health and Safety, headed by Tony Dean, Ontario’s former cabinet secretary, which tabled its recommendations in December 2010.
Overall, labour appreciates the recommendations, if fully implemented, will improve safety enforcement — but will the recommendations ensure workers will not die on the job? The death of one worker is not acceptable, let alone the nearly 100 that die each year in the province. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) of Ontario has worked diligently to engage workers and employers in Ontario on the road to zero workplace injuries and fatalities.
In a recent joint letter to the minister of labour, dated Dec. 9, 2010, Paul Moist, the national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), and Ken Lewenza, the national president of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), highlighted the achievements of the WSIB:
“Prevention was added to WSIB in 1998 and since then the lost-time injury rate has declined by 27 per cent, and the no lost-time injury rate has decreased by 15 per cent. Young worker fatalities have decreased by almost 40 per cent since 1999. The High-Risk Firms and Last Chance initiatives are estimated to have resulted in 14,649 fewer lost-time injuries, with an estimated cost avoidance of $960 million.
The panel’s proposal to take prevention out of the WSIB and create a new bureaucracy does not have the support of CUPE or CAW since WSIB must be directly engaged in the full spectrum of health and safety. Ontario only needs to improve the WSIB prevention framework by giving it enforcement capability.”
The expert panel made 46 recommendations, and each of them have merit, but the panel failed to fully deliver on its mandate to protect Ontario’s workers.
Key among the recommendations is the proposal to create a new chief prevention officer along with an advisory council. A new bureaucracy within the Ministry of Labour with a new, well-paid executive is not going to address the problems of protecting the most vulnerable workers in Ontario.
The recommendation to remove prevention from the WSIB and transfer it to the Ministry of Labour solves nothing. WSIB would continue to fund prevention and Ontario’s six safe workplace associations through employer assessments. The only difference is the WSIB would have no control in how more than $225 million in stakeholder funds will be used.
This amounts to an inequitable tax since only 72 per cent of employers in Ontario pay WSIB premiums that, under the Ministry of Labour’s mandate, would cover 100 per cent of Ontario’s prevention programs. This is not fair nor equitable for Ontario’s employers.
“The government of Ontario should reconsider its plans to transfer the workplace safety prevention function to the Ministry of Labour. The change in reporting structure does nothing to reduce injuries but it does obligate the WSIB to transfer funds to the ministry without financial oversight,” said Hugh Mackenzie, an economist for the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives in Ottawa.
Overall, the proposed change to the Occupational Health and Safety Act solves a problem that does not exist, potentially frustrates one of the core goals of the WSIB and creates new problems of accountability.
Given the complexity of prevention and enforcement, the government should follow established best practice models by mirroring the WorkSafeBC model which has prevention, enforcement and compensation working together under one act.
The Ontario government must pause Bill 160 — the legislation it introduced to address the recommendation on March 3 — and consider an option that ensures all three components of prevention, enforcement and compensation are working in tandem.
Harry Goslin is president of the Ontario Compensation Employees Union (OCEU).