Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Internal Responsibility System

Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Internal Responsibility System

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InSolidarity Logo

By Joe Grogan, retired


All OPSEU/SEFPO members go to work every day to earn a living to support of their families and achieve their individual goals. We want to come home at the end of the day in the same condition, or better, than when we started the day.

We don’t want to put our lives or others’ at risk – no matter our occupation. Thanks to union activity and our involvement in the political process, we were able to make very significant progress during the 1970s here in Ontario thanks to the Steelworkers, the UAW (now UNIFOR), CUPE, OPSEU/SEFPO, the IBEW and many other union organizations.

To make this progress, many people literally paid with their lives, while others put their careers at risk and used the political process, mainly the NDP, to produce the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which protects most workers under provincial jurisdiction. Those under federal jurisdiction are covered by the Canada Labour Code. A very important principle and procedure of this act is the internal responsibility system.

The internal responsibility system: pros and cons

This act was developed on the understanding that workplace parties have a responsibility to address and resolve health and safety hazards. Workplace parties have the best knowledge to resolve issues, since they have daily experience in the workplace.

This positive assumption does not always work in reality. Why? Frankly, because some employers do not care about their responsibility to take every caution reasonable to protect workers. While workers realize the implications, say, of doing more with less, employers often ignore the implications.

What results from this employer and managerial approach? A huge growth in employee stress, because they realize that doing more with less also produces efforts to cut corners. If our supervisor stresses production over health and safety, and workers want to keep their jobs, they try to do the impossible.

If a worker has tried to resolve matters with no resolution, they can exercise their right to refuse work. The act sets out specific steps (see section 43 of the act) that must be followed, including requesting a Ministry of Labour inspector. If the worker is unionized, they can get help from the union. However, Ontario law does not provide the right to refuse work in some specific workplaces, as described in the act, such hospitals, sanitariums, long-term care homes, mental health centres and rehabilitation centres.

That means workers in nursing homes dealing with the pandemic cannot exercise the right to refuse, since they are excluded under the act! The internal responsibility system does not work for them. During the pandemic, transit worker members of ATU complained they did not have access to PPE. They only got it when there was a spontaneous walkout by drivers.

We must realize many employers do not have the same commitment to health and safety that workers and unions have. Profit is their main concern. Employers enjoy tremendous power. The Health and Safety Act provides some protection, but it will only really function when employers, including governments, have an equal commitment to workplace health and safety that unions and workers do.