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New laws give health and safety activists more power to protect themselves and the public

On January 1, two new laws took effect in Ontario, ushering in important changes for all workers. The two laws are Bill 148, “A Plan for Fair Workplaces and Better Jobs”, and Bill 177 “The Stronger Fairer Ontario Act” (also known as the Elliot Lake Bill).

If you’re on a joint health and safety committee (JHSC) or a health and safety rep, some of these changes are especially important and will require specific discussions with the employer and changes to workplace inspection sheets, policies and actions.

OPSEU applauds one change in particular because it further empowers JHSC members or health and safety reps to identify hazards and make recommendations to the employer for workplace safety.

This change comes in Bill 177, which adds a new provision in Section 25 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) requiring “tenant employers” to notify the Ministry of Labour (MOL) when JHSC's or health and safety reps raise concerns that people are endangered because of structural inadequacies in their building.

In other words, employers that rent their workplaces must now notify the MOL if workers flag a sewer-backup or leaking roof or anything that could compromise the building’s water tightness and integrity. 

“Too many workplaces across Ontario, where the public routinely visit and our members work, are compromised.” said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “Responsibility often ping-pongs back and forth between employers and building owners leaving workers and the public in jeopardy.”

“Our health and safety activists have pushed for years to have these conditions properly addressed and now with this addition to the OHSA, our members as well as the public will be better protected against mould and  structural defects,” Thomas said. “Defects, which left unaddressed, can and do result in tragedies like the Elliot Lake Mall collapse that killed two people and left another seriously injured in  2012.”

Other Bill 177 highlights

  • Changing Section 53 of the OHSA so additional accident and incident reporting requirements can be made by regulation. (Currently, only construction, mines, and mining plants are required to report certain types of incidents). This provides the authority to include other types of employers.
  • Fines under Section 66 of the OHSA have been increased substantially, from $25,000 to $100,000 for individuals and from $500,000 to $1.5 million for corporations.
  • Section 69 of the OHSA is changed to extend the MOL’s time limits to lay charges. Currently the MOL has one year from the time of the offense to lay charges. The amendments will allow the MOL one year from the time the MOL first becomes aware of the offense.

Bill 148, “Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017” highlights

  • New provisions in Section 21.5 of the Employment Standards Act (ESA) prohibit a worker from refusing to report for duty when called by an employer to deal with an emergency, to remedy or reduce a threat to public safety, or to ensure the continued delivery of essential public services. For clarity, these prohibitions do not affect a worker’s right to refuse unsafe work under the OHSA.
  • New under Section 25 of the OHSA, employers cannot require workers to wear footwear with elevated heels (high heels) unless they are needed for workplace safety. (There are exceptions in the entertainment and advertising industries.)
  • As per Section 49.7 of the ESA, the employer must put in place mechanisms to protect the confidentiality of records they receive or produce in relation to an employee taking domestic or sexual violence leave, which they are now entitled to under the ESA. These obligations are similar to requirements in the OHSA to keep harassment complaint information confidential.  

Based on these changes your JHSCs should:

  • Place these legislated changes on an upcoming joint health and safety committee meeting agenda for fulsome discussion and review with the employer.
  • Monthly workplace inspection sheets, policies and actions must be amended to ensure that the workplace is fully inspected for any signs of water damage, such as leakage, flooding, or sewage back up and address any damage.