Workplace inspections: Never mind the law, what about morality? (Guest Commentary)

A December 2004 prosecution against Stelco Inc. for failing to abide by a section of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Ontario) made me rethink the entire logic behind doing health and safety audits.

In this case, a Ministry of Labour investigator found a machine, which bands coils of steel, was not properly equipped with a guarding device to protect workers from the pinch point. The worker suffered serious injuries including broken ribs.

Stelco Inc. pleaded guilty to violating section 25 of the Regulations for Industrial Establishments. That regulation requires “An in-running nip hazard or any part of a machine, device or thing that may endanger the safety of any worker shall be equipped with and guarded by a guard or other device that prevents access to the pinch point.”

Stelco Inc. was fined $125,000 in addition to a 25-per-cent victim surcharge. Could this injury have been avoided had the company conducted a thorough workplace inspection and abided by its obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act?

A more important question has to do with morality. Every employer is aware, or should be, that the law requires them to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.”

But there is a larger moral obligation to ensure that employers are thinking at all times about the protection of workers. The fact so many statutes and regulations are needed to spell out what should simply be a matter of common sense is a damning indictment of society in general, and of the employer community in particular.

Employers have abrogated moral responsibility for safety, allowing lawmakers and bureaucrats to dictate how workplaces should function. Businesses are so focused on profit that the provision of employment to living human beings has become a secondary, almost irrelevant, function so long as the work those employees do ends up making more money.

Worse still, the protection of workers has receded so far from corporate vision that it is viewed as a matter of nuisance. In the drive to cut costs to compete with companies around the world, Canadian businesses have lost sight of the human beings in workplaces. They have become mere cogs in a larger piece of machinery.

In Ontario the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board is expanding its Workwell initiative, which seeks to force employers to attain and maintain an arbitrary standard of health and safety in the workplace.

In a move ostensibly designed to cut workplace injuries by 20 per cent by 2008, the province recently hired 100 new health and safety inspectors and plans to hire anther 100 by the end of the year. Labour minister Chris Bentley announced, “increased enforcement will promote safer workplaces and make Ontario the place to be for years to come.”

Why are employers not seeking to achieve even higher standards of health and safety than those imposed on them? Why must such an important moral issue like the protection of workers be dictated by outside agencies? Are business leaders geniuses in engineering, design and marketing yet complete ignoramuses when it comes to health and safety?

In my 20 years’ experience consulting to employers on health and safety issues, it has been rare indeed to encounter an employer that understands the protection of the workforce is a moral issue.

This is not a legal issue. It is not something you do because some outside agency has imposed this obligation. You should do this because you are morally obligated to protect those who make your life richer and easier. And until employers understand and accept that the health and safety is a moral issue, businesses will go on being subject to the vagaries of bureaucrats and lawmakers and their ever-changing statutes and policies.

So the next time poor workplace inspection procedures and absence of strictly enforced health and safety policies result in injury to a worker and a subsequent visit from the health and safety police intent on changing the way you conduct your business, ask yourself why you have allowed workplace procedures to deteriorate to such an extent? Do you have health and safety procedures because you feel a strong need to enhance and protect the lives of workers, or are they simply a response to some statutory requirement and ministry order?

Hilary Amolins consults with employers on workplace safety and insurance issues. He is a published author and is currently writing a book on leadership. His services are listed at and he can be contacted at (866) 266-5467 or at [email protected].

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