The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently released a study on recent federal workplace safety efforts. The study, Why We Need Major Changes to the Health and Safety Regime in Federally Regulated Workplaces, looked at OHS developments between 2007 and 2012 in sectors under federal jurisdiction, including banking, communications, broadcasting, postal services, road, air, rail and water transport, as well as the federal government.
The following key areas were examined in the study:
Injury and fatality rates. Although certain injury indices for federally regulated workplaces have improved since 2007, the improvements are small compared to those at the provincial level and absolute numbers remain very high. There were still nearly 21,000 disabling injuries in 2012, down only 200 from 2002. And between 2002 and 2013, 684 employees died as a result of workplace injury—a yearly average of 57 deaths.
Ratio of employees to inspectors. Since 2007, employment in the federally regulated sector has grown 15%, to 1,173,165 in 2012. At the same time, the number of inspectors has fallen sharply. The Labour Program claims there are 90 inspectors today and a recent federal budget promised to hire 10 more. But according to a department employee list, there are no more than 67 inspectors currently working. Thus, the ratio of workers to inspectors in the federally regulated sector has increased substantially, from an already high 8,151 to 1 in 2007, to 13,035 to 1 today (a 60% increase based on the government’s claim of 90 inspectors). This kind of ratio makes it physically impossible for inspectors to do the regular inspection work required.
Changes to federal OHS law. In 2013, amendments to the Canada Labour Code hidden in a budget bill reduced the power of health and safety inspectors and critically weakened the definition of workplace “danger,” which can be used by employees to refuse unsafe work. These changes, combined with the dismantling of the tripartite oversight committees for health and safety, have a left the system much diminished in its regulatory oversight powers, says the study.
Bottom line: The study concludes that the situation is a recipe for both potentially dangerous OHS issues and injuries occurring when inspection is absent or so highly limited that it can’t create the safe workplace environment workers expect and deserve.
The CCPA study does include recommendations on how to improve the situation. Here are some of the key suggestions:
Repeal the changes to the Canada Labour Code. The changes to the Canada Labour Code in Bill C-4 (2013) should be rolled back, which means restoring the role of health and safety officers and bringing back the previous definition of “danger,” among other changes.
Conduct regular field inspections of all workplaces, targeting high-risk workplaces. These practices should be combined with unadvertised “blitzes” on targeted employers and business sectors. Virtual inspections and self-inspection shouldn’t be used as a substitute for regular government inspections.
Increase staffing levels of health and safety officers. To ensure an effective workplace health and safety inspection system, staffing levels should be increased and continue to be increased over time to meet the goals of regular inspections, satisfy the need to have inspectors based across Canada and ensure staff levels grow in relation to employment and growth in more dangerous sectors.
Improve data collection—and make data transparent. The government must develop a reliable and transparent database on OHS incidents and inspections for all federally regulated companies in coordination with the Canada Revenue Agency, workers’ comp boards and other sources of information. This database should include required Employer Annual Hazardous Occurrence reporting, with fines and penalties imposed on employers that don’t report.
In addition, all Labour Program, Transport Canada and National Energy Board OHS regulatory activities should be made transparent, with all data, including how many inspections, orders for improvement and penalties were carried out and implemented, published on a regular basis.