The second in a series of blogs on workplace health and safety in Alberta.
Any respectful workplace health and safety system, one that actually ensures workers make it home safely at the end of their shifts, includes three fundamental rights for workers: the right to know, the right to participate and the right to refuse unsafe work.
The Right to Know
The first key right, is the right to know. The right to know in a health and safety system is foundational for all other rights, because if you don’t know the dangers you might face at work it can be next to impossible to prevent them. Considering how foundational this right is, it is surprising, that during a global health pandemic Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) Government has made changes to the OHS Act that limit a worker’s right to know. These changes are contained within Bill 47, the so called Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, 2020.
Competence Requirement Removed
The UCP’s changes will allow workers who are not competent to do work that may endanger themselves and others – as long as, they are under the supervision of someone who is trained. With this change, the UCP is normalizing work that endangers workers and circumventing the need for employers to train all of their workers to be competent. As well, it is now a worker’s obligation to ensure the supervisor watching them is in fact competent.
Training in Lieu of Hazard Mitigation
The UCP have now added a requirement that workers must participate in trainings provided by employers however, there is no clarification if this includes training provided outside of working hours or if the training will be paid at the workers’ regular pay rate. The focus on training also shifts emphasis away from other OHS options and highlights a desire by some employers to “train away safety hazards”. Instead of properly mitigating workplace hazards through engineering or administrative controls some employers would like to briefly train workers on the dangers.
The UPC have also given more opportunities for employers to opt-out of parts of the OHS Act and Code without the public knowing. Under the UCP changes employers can apply to opt-out of any OHS requirement and the workers will no longer be consulted by government to see how they will be impacted. The government also does not even have to post which employers have opted-out of which sections of our legislation.
Removing Mandatory Review of Opt-Outs
To make matters worse, the UCP got rid of any mandatory review of opt-outs given after a certain period of time, meaning they could continue indefinitely and never be reviewed. Lastly, prior to the UCP changes employers wanting to opt-out of OHS requirements had to show they were still providing a safe work environment for workers and the public, in some cases now, they just have to show that the opt-out “is appropriate to the Alberta conditions” – whatever that means.
Cutting Director of Occupational Hygiene
The UCP have also made a number of changes to OHS and Government Staff. One key change is that the UCP have taken out the Director of Occupational Hygiene position from the OHS Act. This Director previously considered applications from employers to opt-out of parts of the OHS Act and Code for things related to harmful substances, such as, chemical exposure and respiratory protective equipment. This is especially appalling given the fact that we are in the middle of a global health pandemic, because of a respiratory illness.
The Right to Know…less
Some of these changes may seem minor or not to impact the intent of the OHS Act, however, many of the specific requirements in the OHS Act that helped keep workers safe are no longer legislated requirements, but rather at this point optional. Changes like this water-down the health and safety rights of all workers and give bad employers more options to cut corners on the backs of workers.
More to come…
This is part of a series looking at Bill 47. In the next blog, we will look at how the UCP's changes impact the right to participate in a health and safety system. To see the first blog in the series you can go here.