Changes 'allow some flexibility to tailor approaches to safety at a particular workplace'
For employers operating in Alberta, Dec. 1 will bring a brand new occupational health and safety regime, as the province enforces its new OHS act.
Canadian HR Reporter recently spoke with Steve Eichler, partner at Field Law in Calgary, about what employers will have to contend with once the law takes effect.
Q: What are the biggest changes to be aware of?
A: “The basis for the changes are to make the act more responsive to the needs of employers, and allow some flexibility to tailor approaches to safety to a particular workplace.
“One area that, frankly, will cause some stir in excitement is, some time ago, we had the notion that you had to create safety committees that had some pretty onerous requirements: there were requirements as to meetings, there were requirements as to the composition of the committee, there were some pretty broad powers that the representative had in terms of working alongside employees for safety. And now, we have a rolling back of those obligations in order to allow greater flexibility in terms of what the employer would require.
“For example, prior to these changes, you had government-sponsored training that committee members had to go through, and that requirement has been removed. There still has to be some training but it doesn’t have to be government-approved training anymore.
“Another big change is with respect to refusing work that would be considered unsafe. A number of years ago, we had the idea of an employer not being permitted to take action against a worker who refuses to do work on the basis of work was unsafe and they were deemed discriminatory. Of course, discrimination, we know that to be a human rights term and so that might have caused some confusion. But it also seemed to water down what actual discrimination is. That has been changed from discriminatory to disciplinary, so we have a disciplinary action.”
Q: What overall effect will the act have on employers?
A: “The issue is there is so much being put on employers now. Employers have always been the frontline workers when it comes to safety and so the better we can have that task enabled, the better safety will be. And specifically when earlier changes came out — specific training requirements, specific number of meetings, etc. — it was a good intention to try to really drill safety down and assist employers with the specifics. But safety is a mindset, safety is a culture and… the idea of ensuring that there are minutes maintained and administrative work for an outfit that may not really have great administrative processes but at the same time have great safety processes, that was a problem.
“Allowing businesses to run themselves as they see fit, certainly with a mandatory view that they have to keep safety foremost in mind, but not getting lost in the administrative minutiae, that strikes me as a step in the right direction.”
“[But] this should not be seen as a relaxation or as a rolling back of safety obligations. The law hasn’t changed in terms of the responsibility and the fundamental standards. If anything, it’s the administrative minutiae that may have changed but that should not be mistaken to be a relaxation of safety standards: work sites have to be as safe as they always were.”
Q: How does changed wording, such as to ‘undue hazard’ instead of ‘dangerous condition,’ make a difference?
A: “The devil is in the details trying to figure out when are you allowed to put that flag on the field. And, of course, the struggle is that it’s always been contextual. [For example] sparks are not inappropriate in welding but they are inappropriate in a bakery.
“With respect to safety, you want somebody to feel empowered to be able to say, ‘Wait a minute, something’s wrong,’ but at the same time, they may be incorrect and it may simply be that in this context, sparks happened in welding and so it would be inappropriate to stop production, just because they’re sparks.
“The notion of changing to an undue hazard reflects two things: work involves hazards and we have that in the legislation, in the code; you try to eliminate hazards but of course, you can’t eliminate them so you have to manage them. Changing the language to undue hazard recognizes that but it focuses on undue, it focuses on what is inappropriate, it focuses on what can’t be managed.
“That is a mature focus by this legislation on trying to identify not just what is problematic but what is problematic to the degree that it is a real safety obstacle within the context. It’s not just what constitutes a danger.”
Canadian HR Reporter recently heard from a legal expert about what employers have to consider when employees feel work is unsafe.
Q: What steps should employers be taking to prepare?
A: “It’s an opportunity to take your own temperature and see what you need to do… look at the legislation, get help if you need looking at the legislation, see if you can simplify your life as this is intended. For example, all the changes to the committee structure, maybe you don’t need all the meetings but if you like your process, if you think your process works, you don’t have to change it.
“Familiarize yourself with the changes and get help to understand what it means but take advantage of that process to look at your safety processes.
“The most important thing is really take a look to see if there are changes specific to your industry. They may be subtle, and there may be changes that you don’t need to know about, but now’s the time not to skip over that chapter but familiarize yourself with it as well.
“Now’s the time to make sure that your safety culture is shined up again and that people have that in mind. Brush off the cobwebs and make the seminars for everybody. It’s really worthwhile just to go over things; take advantage of the chance to be asked to do that because the goal is to get everyone home in one piece.”
A recent report found that unionization is associated with a 25-per-cent lower rate of injury.