Investigators can close unsafe workplaces with stop-work orders
Health and safety inspectors in British Columbia are getting more power after the provincial government introduced legislation aimed at beefing up workers’ compensation laws.
Bill 9 was first tabled in February by Labour Minister Shirley Bond and came into effect this spring. It amends the Workers Compensation Act to strengthen enforcement policies at WorkSafeBC, the province’s workers’ compensation board.
Under the new legislation, WorkSafeBC investigators will have the authority to shutter unsafe workplaces with stop-work orders. In the case of “egregious, willful and repeat offenders,” the courts will be able to bar offenders from the industry altogether, according to the ministry.
As well, employers will be required to conduct an investigation within 48 hours of a significant incident and to take necessary actions to prevent a similar incident from occurring while a full investigation is being conducted. A provision that establishes compliance agreements is scheduled to come into effect later this fall, and OHS citations for employers will be introduced in early 2016.
The changes come as a direct response to a 200-page report from Gord Macatee, a special WorkSafeBC adviser tasked with reviewing the province’s worker safety system last summer. He made 43 recommendations, all of which were accepted by government, 12 of which required the direct legislative changes implemented via Bill 9.
“The recommendations made in the action plan are intended to enable WorkSafeBC to deal with health and safety risks in the workplace earlier and more firmly,” Macatee said when the legislation was introduced.
The report comes on the heels of two deadly sawmill blasts in the province that killed four workers and injured many others.
“In the wake of the tragedies at Babine and at Lakeland (sawmills), changes needed to be made, and our government and WorkSafeBC accepted all 43 recommendations in the Macatee report to ensure we have a world-class inspection and investigations regime, and that British Columbians have safe workplaces,” Bond said.
Organized labour wary
But Bill 9 falls short, according to labour groups such as the British Columbia Federation of Labour.
Aaron Ekman, the federation’s secretary-treasurer, said the legislation should focus on employers. As one concern, he cited joint health and safety committees, and how their role could change. Modifying the relationship between worker and management, when it comes to safety, is particularly unsettling. Ekman cited the fatal Lakeland explosion in Prince George, B.C., as one example, as many employees had informed management about a potential risk and the possibility a layer of dust had accumulated.
“After an incident investigation is conducted by the employer, there’s no requirement to go back to the joint occupational health and safety committee with that report until a much later stage. This is just mind-boggling,” Ekman said. “It’s exactly the kind of thing that allows concerns that come off the shop floor — raised by employees — to then be acted upon by the employer.”
The notion of ticketing workers has also raised eyebrows. Ekman maintains the onus should be on the employer to ensure a safe workplace and that employees comply with site-specific policies.
“Employers already have the ability to discipline employees if they’re not following any kind of regulation or the expectations or policies of the employer, so why would you add to that an additional fine? It’s redundant,” Ekman explained.
Also, Bill 9’s cornerstone is enforcement, with little emphasis on preventative measures, such as training or education, he said.
“When you look at why workers get injured or killed, it’s because of lack of training, lack of proper safety equipment being provided for them by the employer — and also then receiving direction from employers to do work that’s not safe, and then having the courage to challenge that,” he said.
“So to add an additional financial penalty in that kind of context, where there’s an inherent power imbalance between employers and workers, is just redundant, and it’s not going to address the problem at all.”
The labour ministry said Macatee’s mandate was to focus on areas that needed attention, such as enforcement, but added that one recommendation calls for WorkSafeBC to continue to put a priority on education and proactive compliance.