Ontario has ignored criminal dimension of workplace safety

TheStar.com – Opinion
February 01, 2010.   Sid Ryan

A worker is maimed after a company director forced him to remove required machine safety guarding that was causing machinery to overheat.

A construction company owner ignores the warnings of an engineering report and sends his workers onto the job anyway. Part of the building collapses and a worker is trapped.

Directors of a manufacturing company ignore the Ministry of Labour’s machine guarding orders, and a worker is pulled into the machinery and seriously injured.

These are among the thousands of work-related injuries and deaths the Ontario Ministry of Labour investigates and prosecutes each year. But the continued carnage tells us that’s not enough.

We have another very powerful tool available to us – and yet Ontario is not using it. The Westray Bill, or Bill C-45, amended the Criminal Code of Canada to allow for criminal prosecutions of corporate executives, directors and managers who act wrongfully or neglect to uphold their responsibilities to make and keep workplaces healthy and safe.

This legislation has been on the books – and on the shelf – for six years. Our Ontario government has never used it. Not once. Ever.

Criminalization of an act is a powerful deterrent. There’s a world of difference between a company being charged and fined for violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and individuals and companies being held responsible and accountable for criminal actions.

The Westray Bill, passed in 2004, took its name from the 1992 mine disaster in Nova Scotia in which 26 miners died when the mine collapsed, a direct result of employer negligence.

In the six years that the Criminal Code provision has been available but unused, more than 400 workers have been killed on the job. Nearly 2 million were injured.

In that same six years, the Ministry of Labour has successfully prosecuted nearly 14,000 charges against companies and individuals for workplace health and safety violations. Ontario’s police and crown attorneys have prosecuted exactly none of these cases. How can there be 14,000 prosecutions in cases of injury and death, and none of them investigated for criminal negligence?

The Ontario Federation of Labour has asked numerous times for meetings with the attorney general and the minister of community safety and correctional services to discuss this important and unused provision of the Criminal Code.

We wanted to know how much training police and crown attorneys get in this provision. What protocols are in place for cooperation and communication between police and Ministry of Labour inspectors? How are decisions made about whether to proceed with ministry charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, criminal charges under the Criminal Code, or both?

We still don’t know the answers because we’re still unable to secure meetings with the ministries involved.

One of my first acts as president of the Ontario Federation of Labour was to push for a criminal investigation into the horrific Christmas Eve tragedy in Toronto when four construction workers fell to their death and a fifth was seriously injured. Both police and the Ministry of Labour are now investigating it.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has appointed former deputy minister of labour Tony Dean to head an expert advisory panel to review the province’s health and safety prevention and enforcement system. Labour Minister Peter Fonseca has requested that representatives from the Ontario Federation of Labour and our union affiliates sit on this panel. We thank him, and we are looking forward to the opportunity.

One of our first priorities will be to ensure that a review of the use or, more accurately, the disuse of Criminal Code provisions will be included within the scope of the panel’s deliberations.

It took 12 years of educating, organizing and lobbying by unions and our community allies to get the Westray Bill passed into law, but when it was passed, it was unanimously, with all-party support in both the House of Commons and the Senate.

If all parties in Parliament thought the Westray Bill worthy of being made law, our government must certainly enforce it here in Ontario.

How many of those 400 workers killed on the job since 2004 might be alive today had criminal investigations become part of the health and safety culture? How many of the 2 million workers injured might have stayed safe?

Workers need and deserve better protection and more respect. Corporate executives, directors and managers whose decisions kill or maim a worker must be held accountable. We have a powerful tool to make it happen. Ontario has to get the Westray Bill off the shelf and into the courts.

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