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Sask OH&S changes put worker safety at risk, says former officer

03/04/2015 06:30 EST | Updated 05/04/2015 05:59 EDT
A former provincial occupational health and safety officer says Saskatchewan workers could be at risk because his former employer has virtually halted random inspections and dramatically scaled back enforcement. 

Pat Bowers told CBC’s iTeam that for most of his 12 years at Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) he was expected to be out in the field doing inspections at least three days a week, unexpectedly dropping in on businesses and spotting violations of workplace safety rules.

He and his 51 fellow safety officers spotted a lot of them, on average writing 600 “notices of contravention” a month. 

But since a major policy change in 2013, OHS officers have written 33 such notices a month, when averaged over the past year.

In March 2014, all OHS officers in Saskatchewan wrote a total of six notices. 

Overall, that’s 94 per cent fewer than they wrote before the change in direction.

That was alarming to Bowers, who told CBC’s iTeam, “I thought it was disgusting.” 

Bowers said because of the changes, he was spending most of his time in the office rather than inspecting oil rigs and construction sites, as he had done for years.

“We no longer do any proactive inspections. We wait for something to happen and then we go.”

Bowers said he took early retirement last July because “I felt like we weren’t doing our jobs.”

A major change at Occupational Health and Safety

In October 2013, OHS made a radical change to its operations. 

It moved away from random inspection to an almost exclusive focus on 62 of Saskatchewan’s most injury-prone businesses. 

In total, those companies employ 67,000 people, 15 per cent of Saskatchewan’s work force.

“Rather than doing a set of ad hoc inspections, we’re going to now move in a very focussed way,” said Mike Carr, deputy minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety. “Focussing our inspection efforts on those workplaces where there is a serious injury problem.”

Carr said that at the time of the change his officers told the 62 employers their injury rates are among the worst in the province and must be fixed. 

“Then we started a conversation that challenged them to produce a safety plan in each of those workplaces that would demonstrate that they did have that knowledge and awareness.” 

Carr said OHS had been spinning its wheels for years, spending too much time visiting businesses that didn’t have an injury problem. 

He said from his analysis, in recent years only “nine per cent of our inspections were to workplaces that had an injury rate issue.”

He concluded that “while the previous model kept our folks fully and gainfully employed, the fact is that we were not having a substantial impact on reduction in the injury rate.” 

Saskatchewan’s injury rate is high but decreasing

Carr is bothered by the fact that Saskatchewan’s injury rate is the second highest in the country, though he noted it has been decreasing. 

From 2008 until 2013, when the new approach began, Saskatchewan’s injury rate dropped on average 5.5 per cent a year. 

In 2013,  it dropped by 10 per cent. In October of that year, OHS began its new approach.

After the first full year of the new system, the injury rate dropped another nine per cent, according to Workers’ Compensation Board estimates.

Carr said he’s especially encouraged when he looks at the results in the 62 businesses his officers have been focusing on. 

He noted that before the new approach the injury rate in those businesses was dropping by just two per cent a year. But in one year under the new program, they saw a 22 per cent drop. 

But Bowers is not impressed. He said it seems inappropriate to focus on just a handful of businesses when there are almost 40,000 employers in the province.

He said many of them are involved in dangerous work and now they’re being ignored. 

“I wanted to know how they picked out the 62 businesses because the high hazard areas, I felt, were often left out,” Bowers said. “We couldn’t go to construction sites, we couldn’t go to oil rigs unless something happened.” 

Bowers said without inspectors visible in the field, safety compliance is going to plummet. 

“People comply because they see you driving around, same as police. You’re not going to rob a bank on Broadway Avenue if police are driving up there two or three times a day.” 

Workplace violations increasing, says safety consultant

Alex Taylor, a Saskatchewan safety consultant, said he’s spent more than a decade travelling  around Saskatchewan teaching safety in the workplace. 

He said over the past year he’s noticed a growing number of safety violations. 

“I think that if I was to take you for a drive through a construction area in Saskatoon today you would see between 400 and 500 violations,” Taylor said. 

“And is it going to get better? Are the roofers all wearing their fall protection? No. Who’s going to catch them?” asked Taylor.

“The ground. The ground is going to catch them.” 

Taylor said the ministry should restore random inspections and increase enforcement before the death toll rises. 

But he said the province needs to go even further and start issuing stiff fines to workers and their employers. 

“They’ve tried the carrot and the stick without a stick for the last 75 years. Maybe it’s time to hit somebody with a stick.”

In July 2014, the province introduced ‘summary offense ticketing,’ which gives OHS the power to fine workers and employers. 

For example, if a worker fails to wear fall protection gear, the worker could be fined $250 and the employer could receive a $1,000 fine on the spot.

However, since the fine program was introduced, only two tickets have been written. 

Taylor said fines won’t do much if they are rarely used.

Deputy Minister defends new approach

Carr said the province isn’t entirely abandoning random inspections. 

He said from time to time inspectors will do a blitz of construction sites, or late night retail, where workplace injuries are high. 

He said officers also continue to respond to complaints and investigate serious injuries. 

And he pointed out that this new approach is driven by a desire to make workplaces safer, not to save money. 

“This is not a cost-saving or cost-curtailment exercise. This is actually redeploying resources, in our view, to a higher purpose,” Carr said. 

He said the province is also trying to serve that higher purpose by increasing worker safety and rights training in K to 12 education. 

Carr said he hopes education in the workplace and at school will make Saskatchewan a province that embraces and practises safety. 

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