11/20/2013 10:21 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

More workplace inspector follow-up needed to ensure safety: Nova Scotia auditor

HALIFAX - Only a small fraction of employers in Nova Scotia were given tickets for workplace safety violations over a one-year period despite missing deadlines, the province's auditor general says.

Provincial auditors found 10 summary offence tickets were issued in 1,228 cases where workplaces failed to comply in time with safety orders between April 1, 2012, and March 31, 2013.

Auditor general Jacques Lapointe says Labour Department inspectors need to do a better job of following up after identifying safety issues.

"The department should focus more on prevention by better enforcing compliance with work orders," Lapointe told a news conference after his fall report was released Wednesday.

The department's response in the report says 95 per cent of employers did eventually comply with the orders.

A department spokeswoman said inspectors also used administrative penalties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act as a way to push employers to comply with orders.

Labour Minister Kelly Regan said her department agrees it has to be more consistent in enforcing its rules.

"If people continue to break safety rules we will use the toughest tools we have to protect workers," she said in an interview. "Non-compliance is not an option."

Lapointe said the department's health and safety division needs to target higher-risk workplaces using Workers' Compensation Board data.

Only 27 of 100 workplaces with the worst safety records were targeted for inspection during the one-year period examined, said Lapointe.

The report says the current system identifies higher-risk workplaces, but it fails to create a specific plan for their inspection over the course of a year.

As a result, some of the province's more dangerous workplaces — such as health and social services facilities —aren't receiving enough attention, says the report.

"Part of this involves focusing a little better on inspecting targeted workplaces, the higher risk ones ... and being a little more organized," said Lapointe.

Auditors say the department's health and safety division also lacks a system to log and track complaints to ensure they are recorded and investigated.

Tony Tracy of the Canadian Labour Congress said it's clear the province needs more inspectors and described the number of summary tickets that were issued as "ridiculously low."

"People are stretched very thin," he said. "We need to ensure the (inspector) staffing levels are adequate to ensure inspections after an accident as well as pre-emptive inspections."

Regan says the department is hiring five new employees to bring the total number of investigators and inspectors to 40.

She said with more employees, more unannounced inspections will take place.

But Lapointe said it's premature to conclude the problem is a shortage of staff.

"It's hard to say what the right number (of inspectors) would be," he said. "It's a question, first, of making sure that what they're doing is as efficient as possible."