Chris Aylward

Harper's war on workplace health and safety

safety first.jpg

Another session of Parliament, another everything-but-the-kitchen-sink omnibus bill from the Harper government. This one, the Budget Implementation Act (Bill C-4), is 322 pages long, amending dozens of acts and containing several non-budgetary items. But the Conservatives are allowing only four days for the Opposition to discuss it before it moves on to the committee stage. Proper Parliamentary scrutiny is impossible in such a short time frame, and critics are, rightly, calling this an attack on the democratic process.

In all the commotion over other aspects of this Bill, the gutting of the health and safety provisions in Part II of the Canada Labour Code isn’t getting much press as yet. But it should. 1.2 million workers, including the vast majority of our own members, are being put at serious risk by this government. Isn’t that worth a little media attention?

There are two major changes proposed that will detrimentally affect these men and women in their workplaces.

The first is a restricted definition of the word “danger.” Compare the two wordings for yourselves. Here’s the current one:

“danger” means any existing or potential hazard or condition or any current or future activity that could reasonably be expected to cause injury or illness to a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected, or the activity altered, whether or not the injury or illness occurs immediately after the exposure to the hazard, condition or activity, and includes any exposure to a hazardous substance that is likely to result in a chronic illness, in disease or in damage to the reproductive system.

And here is what the government proposes to replace it with:

“danger” means any hazard, condition or activity that could reasonably be expected to be an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected or the activity altered.

By removing the concept of potential or future hazards, the government would be forcing workers to put themselves in actual harm’s way before they could establish that their working conditions are dangerous. The word “illness” has been taken out of the definition as well, and the right to refuse work that poses a danger to the reproductive system is specifically eliminated in the new wording. Put together, these omissions likely mean, for example, that workers would not be able to claim protection from potential chronic or slow-developing illnesses based upon exposure to substances that over time could cause cancer or birth defects. Under the new definition, how many workers would confidently exercise their right to refuse dangerous work based upon the potential impact of such exposure?

What we are seeing here, in fact, is not a new definition at all, but the return of an outmoded definition of danger, one changed in 2000 because it was considered too restrictive to provide full protection to employees. That change was seen to be more consistent with the purpose of Part II of the Code, which is to prevent accidents and injury arising out of employment. Changing it back in 2013 substantially increases workplace risk by making it significantly more difficult to refuse dangerous work. And that in turn reduces the incentive for employers and managers to maintain safe and healthy workplaces.

The second major change is a significant relaxation of health and safety enforcement standards. Currently, professional health and safety officers have broad powers to inspect workplaces and enforce safe working conditions. But the new legislation abolishes them, replacing them with political appointees. Comparing the wording is instructive. Under the current Code, health and safety officers must be “qualified to perform the duties of such an officer.” But the proposed replacement legislation leaves the word “qualified” unqualified, merely referring to “any qualified person.” The Minister would decide what that means.

The right to refuse unsafe work would effectively become a matter of Ministerial discretion. Currently, an employee who has refused work that he or she believes to be unsafe may disagree with the employer’s decision, after an investigation, that no danger exists, and continue to refuse. This triggers an immediate, mandatory investigation by a health and safety officer. If that officer’s report finds no danger, the employee must return to work, but has the right to appeal.

Under the proposed new legislation, however, the Minister, who replaces the health and safety officer, can simply refuse to investigate. If the Minister claims that a complaint of unsafe work is “trivial, frivolous or vexatious,” that’s where it all ends. The employee must return to work, and there is no right to appeal against what is, in fact, an untested opinion.

Health and safety has in the past always been deemed everyone’s priority, and that’s just good common sense. It’s been presumed that everyone, management and labour alike, had a stake in keeping their workplace safe. Ensuring healthy workplaces has depended upon consultation and joint participation. When that on occasion fails to resolve disputes about the impact of the job on a worker’s health, a system of monitoring and enforcement by trained and professional health and safety officers is brought into play.

But this bill changes everything. For the first time—unheard of in any other jurisdiction in Canada—workers would be vulnerable to discipline even if they genuinely believe their working conditions are unsafe, and exercise their right to refuse. A cooperative approach that has worked well in the past would now be replaced by an antagonistic system in which unfettered ministerial power could be used to shut down serious workplace health and safety concerns. What on earth is the point?

This government has introduced an unprecedented number of criminal laws, all supposedly in the name of making our communities safe. So why does Harper’s safety agenda stop at the workplace door? Why should our members—or any workers—have to risk their health and even their lives to earn a living? Perhaps that’s a question the media should put to the government. I, for one, would be very interested in the answer they’d get.

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This page contains a single entry by Chris Aylward published on October 28, 2013 8:30 AM.

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