Construction deaths spark Ontario review of health and safety

First thorough review since act came into force 30 years ago: Minister

On Christmas Eve 2009, four construction workers died in Toronto when the scaffolding they were working on collapsed. A fifth worker was seriously injured.

The five men, all migrant workers, were on a swing stage working on a 13th-floor balcony of an apartment building. None of them was wearing a safety harness.

In 2009, 50 people died in workplace accidents in Ontario, 16 of whom were doing construction work. So far this year, there have been several other deaths of construction workers in the province, including a worker who died on March 12 when he plummeted 32 feet through a hole in the floor of a construction site at a University of Toronto campus.

“Whenever there’s a fatality, it’s tragic,” said Ontario Minister of Labour Peter Fonseca.

Following the Christmas Eve incident, the ministry released a hazard alert to the entire construction sector and commenced a safety blitz on swing scaffolding. The ministry also reached out to the construction sector to find out what more could be done to ensure the safety of workers, said Fonseca.

Those consultations highlighted the need for more training and to look into the effect of the underground economy on safety practices, he said.

Based on the consultations, the ministry decided to assemble a 10-person panel, representing a cross-section of stakeholders, to conduct a comprehensive review of the province’s entire health and safety system, including prevention and enforcement.

“This is an opportunity for us to take a quantum leap in health and safety in the province of Ontario,” said Fonseca. “This is the most significant thing we’ve done in the last 30 years since our occupational health and safety act.”

The panel is chaired by Tony Dean, a professor in the school of public policy and governance at the University of Toronto, and has representatives from the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Construction Trades Council of Ontario, Loblaw, Hydro One and the Workers’ Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

The panel will research best-in-class approaches to improving workplace safety and look at a range of issues including entry-level safety training, the impact of the underground economy on health and safety practices and how existing occupational health and safety legislation serves worker safety.

“We know they’re going to identify many of our strengths, we want to build on those strengths, but they’re also going to identify areas that need improving. We want to ensure we find the best practices, that we get it right, and we improve some of our systems as they pertain to enforcement and prevention,” said Fonseca.

The public is invited to participate in the review online or at in-person consultations around the province starting this spring. The panel will then report back to the minister with recommendations by the end of the year.

“There hasn’t been a review for a considerable period of time and the minister of labour wants us to be comprehensive in looking at the system that’s in place for both preventing injuries, illnesses and fatalities and also for enforcing compliance,” said Dean.

The panel will look at the delivery of prevention and enforcement services, including incentive programs such as the WSIB’s workers’ compensation premium rebate program for employers. It will also consider whether training should be mandatory in certain areas and look at the role of health and safety committees.

“We’re also looking at vulnerable employees and those who are currently outside the reach of some of the protections that should be available to them,” said Dean. Vulnerable workers include those in the underground economy as well as temporary or migrant workers and recent immigrants, he said.

“There isn’t any one thing that we can do to make a significant breakthrough. This is about finding all the points of influence that contribute to a culture of safety in workplaces,” said Dean.

Recommendations that come out of the panel will likely involve broad, systemic changes rather than a wholesale re-working of the occupational health and safety act, said Jeremy Warning, an associate at law firm Heenan Blaikie in Toronto.

“It will probably be evolutionary change and not revolutionary change,” he said.

While employer interests in the review will vary depending on the sector, the construction industry in particular is keen on standardized training so employers will know workers, who often travel from job to job, have at least a basic level of training, said Warning.

“Their workforce is quite transient and short-lived in the sense that they may only work on a particular project for a period or lifespan of that project and then move on to work for another organization,” he said.

Worker safety is a shared responsibility, said Fonseca, which is why employers, labour groups, workers, governments and health and safety associations all have to work together to improve the system.

“Our most valuable, our greatest resource that we have here in Ontario, are our people. We want to ensure that those people who go to work and put in a hard day’s work everyday come home safe and sound at the end of the day,” he said.

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