Issued: December 16, 2010


Early in 2010, the Minister of Labour appointed an Advisory Panel on Occupational Health and Safety, chaired by Tony Dean, to conduct a review of Ontario’s occupational health and safety (OHS) system. The Panel was comprised of health and safety experts representing labour and employers, together with specialist academics. It was asked to recommend structural, operational and policy improvements to Ontario’s OHS system.

In launching the review, the Minister provided the Panel with an important opportunity to take a broad look at the OHS system from end to end. The system involves a complex and dynamic interplay of legislation, regulations, institutions, people and a variety of workplace cultures.

A focus on workplaces and the highest value opportunities for change

The Panel’s review focused on areas of workplace health and safety that needed improvement. To ensure that there is real benefit to workplaces, the workplace parties must be actively engaged in the design and implementation of proposed improvements. Effective leadership coupled with the engagement of all the workplace stakeholders contributes to improved health and safety performance.

There are no single levers or changes the Panel could recommend that would effect significant improvements on their own. For this reason, the Panel made an effort to find the best mix of high-value opportunities for change. These opportunities touch on the continuum of prevention and enforcement activities from education in schools and proactive prevention initiatives, right through to the need for effective enforcement in situations where safety standards are breached. As part of this multi-faceted approach to its task, the Panel also recognized the importance of a strong organizational culture and commitment towards health and safety in workplaces, which is often driven from the very top of the most successful business enterprises.

In doing its work, the Panel has emphasized the importance of evidence driven changes which should be implemented with the involvement of the workplace parties.

The Panel’s proposals call for:

  • Better methods of gathering and sharing information so that everyone involved in health and safety can better track the performance of workplaces and sectors and better identify current and emerging risk factors such as those in the underground economy. An important first step would be the development of a broadly accepted set of performance metrics.
  • Providing recognition and incentives for high-performing employers and sharing best practices with other workplaces to bring them up to an appropriate level of health and safety. There is a particular focus on the characteristics and needs of smaller employers.
  • Increasing the involvement of the workplace parties in making decisions about OHS system priorities, and earlier involvement in other decisions that affect them, such as the development of regulations.
  • Providing training to improve foundational knowledge on the rights and responsibilities of workers (existing and entry-level) and supervisors.
  • Rigorous training requirements that set a minimum standard for high-risk activities such as working at heights in the construction industry, with tougher penalties where standards for training, supervision and the provision and use of safety equipment are not followed.
  • Better approaches to reaching and protecting the most vulnerable workers in our economy who sometimes face challenges in understanding and exercising their rights and responsibilities.
  • More collaboration and integration between agencies delivering health and safety services and a more flexible range of enforcement tools for health and safety inspectors.
  • Extending business owner and CEO leadership in building a culture of health and safety and worker involvement. This includes leadership in the implementation of an effective health and safety management system and the support for the effective operation of Joint Health and Safety Committees and Health and Safety Representatives, along with better training for these representatives;
  • Ensuring better accountability for spending and results. This will result in better performance measurement and transparent reporting on progress in priority areas.

Improving workplace safety in a period of economic uncertainty

While we continue to make steady progress in workplace health and safety in Ontario, there is considerable room for accelerated improvement. Over the last five years, Ontario annual workplace fatalities have ranged from a low of 73 to a high of 101, with thousands more seriously injured. This review was preceded by the tragic collapse of a high-rise swing stage that resulted in four deaths and serious injuries to a fifth worker. Workplace fatalities have continued to occur throughout the course of this review, including some in confined spaces such as storage silos. All of these incidents arose in the course of activities that are known to involve a high degree of risk. The overall vision of Ontario’s OHSsystem is the elimination of workplace fatalities. The Panel believes that its recommendations represent an opportunity for the system to take the next step toward achieving the worthy goal of zero workplace injuries and illness.

At the same time, the Panel’s consultations revealed a broad recognition of today’s economic environment. Canada’s economy is improving, but that improvement is tenuous and operates in an increasingly competitive global context. Any further regulatory requirements should be focused on filling significant gaps and tackling demonstrated risks. It should also be cost effective and be well supported by the health and safety delivery organizations. Evidence-based changes must be made in a manner that helps achieve measurable improvements in the workplace, which, in turn, will improve competitiveness. Engaging employees in improving health and safety leads to better business results, and everyone from the CEO to workers can contribute to a safe work environment.

The Panel noted that upwards of $220 million, funded by employers’ insurance premiums, is currently being spent on the delivery of health and safety services in Ontario. While greater investments would further improve prevention or enforcement, or both, the Panel believes that our recommendations can be fully funded within the current spending allocation. The Panel believes that, if implemented, these changes would support better health and safety outcomes in the workplace and improved value for the investment that employers make in prevention and enforcement.

Reinforcing the importance of the internal responsibility system

In developing its recommendations, the Panel learned a lot from business owners and managers, workers, unions and from the professional staff who deliver health and safety services. There is a strong commitment to the Internal Responsibility System (IRS) that Dr. James Ham described when developing Ontario’s first Occupational Health and Safety Act in the 1970s. Ham emphasized that, together with government as standard setter and enforcement services provider, the workplace parties — CEOs, unions, employers, workers and supervisors — play a significant role in promoting workplace health and safety. He emphasized that the role of each of these parties is proportional to the degree of control they exercise in the workplace. Ham also established three fundamental requirements of the IRS: the right of workers to know about workplace hazards, to participate in health and safety matters in the workplace, and to refuse work they consider to be unsafe.

There is a widespread view that Dr. Ham got it right: government can set standards, monitor performance and enforce regulations, but it can’t be in every workplace. For that reason, it is important that all key participants in the workplace understand their rights and responsibilities under legislation and regulations. It is also vital that they are able to discharge those rights and responsibilities with support, and without fear of reprisal.

The Panel heard about significant gaps in current approaches to workplace health and safety, and about opportunities to improve them. Some of its major conclusions and recommendations are described below. In each case, the Panel was guided by advice received in consultations as well as its understanding of Ontario’s workplaces and health and safety delivery systems, and the context in which these operate today.

  • A number of sophisticated business owners and CEOs understand that health and wellness in the workplace goes hand-in-hand with productivity, quality and profitability. The average cost of a lost-time injury (LTI) in Ontario is well over $100,000 once the costs of re-hiring, re-training and lost productivity are factored in. Many employers understand this and consider it an incentive to meet or exceed regulated standards. These high-performing workplaces are not the main focus of this review and/or its major recommendations.

    The Panel believes that exemplary employers can be models for other employers, and are well-positioned to encourage their business partners to achieve or exceed compliance with health and safety standards. For this reason, the Panel recommends an accreditation program for top-flight employers that encourages them to influence the health and safety performance of contractors in their supply chains.

    Many employers do not fall into this high-performing category. Some do not fully understand their rights and responsibilities; others would do better with improved guidance and support from health and safety delivery organizations on the most cost-effective means of achieving compliance in their sector or workplace. This is particularly the case for small workplaces. Several of the Panel’s recommendations focus on these issues. For example, it is proposed that guidelines and codes of practice be developed to better advise employers of how regulations apply to their specific workplace.

  • It is also important that the delivery system is efficient, aligned and responsive to the realities of workplaces and in particular, to running and working in a small business. Where new requirements are contemplated in this report, the Panel has made an effort to view these from the perspective of a small business owner, and to be sensitive to cost, while at the same time making them accessible and understandable for workers. In general, system resources should be focused on high-risk work and areas of conscious non-compliance. Where risk is low and employers would benefit from support, there should be an emphasis on supporting compliance, with enforcement coming into play only where necessary.
  • Certain employers do engage in wilful non-compliance. They know that they are required to provide proper training, supervision and safety equipment to workers and to inform them of workplace hazards, but they actively avoid doing this. It is not unusual to find these employers operating in the underground economy. These workplaces, particularly those in which risks are high, should be the focus of integrated and targeted enforcement strategies. These strategies should be informed by better intelligence gathering and sharing; greater collaboration between delivery departments and agencies; and tougher, escalating, penalties for non-compliance.
  • The nature of workplaces, work and the workforce has changed dramatically since the Occupational Health and Safety Act was enacted in the 1970s. Contract and part-time work is more common, and there are increasing numbers of non-English-speaking workers. Some of these workers start their journey to Canada by paying offshore employment brokers and consultants and often start working in Canada without appropriate documentation. They tend to work in the underground economy, in seasonal agricultural work or the construction industry and are highly vulnerable.

    This has been a key area of focus for the Panel. Tackling the issues associated with this high degree of worker vulnerability requires a multi-pronged approach that includes: active outreach efforts to vulnerable worker communities; providing information in multiple languages and through simple and low-cost mechanisms such as posters, websites and call centers; co-ordination with the Government of Canada on temporary foreign worker issues; and an investigation into employment brokers who recruit undocumented workers to perform vulnerable underground jobs.

  • During consultations, the Panel heard that workers sometimes experience reprisals for raising health or safety concerns. This places vulnerable workers in a particularly difficult position. While such reprisals are prohibited under Section 50 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, there is no quick remedy available to workers who complain about this. The Panel recommends a new fast-track process for these cases. This would involve Ministry of Labour (MOL inspectors working in close co-operation with the Ontario Labour Relations Board to achieve fast and meaningful redress for workers affected by the most serious reprisals.
  • The IRS relies on key workplace parties to understand and exercise important health and safety rights and responsibilities. This starts with CEOs, who are in the best position to influence and drive a culture that recognizes the importance and economic imperative of health and safety in their organizations. This is not happening in enough workplaces. Too many new and young workers start work without adequate training or a good understanding of their rights and responsibilities under the Act. Injury claim rates are almost double for new workers in their first several months on the job than for those with more experience. There are also gaps in supervisors’ knowledge of their legal responsibilities, leading them to attract legal liabilities and to incur risks to workers.

    Both of these areas require greater attention. The report recommends a more intensive focus on workplace health and safety in high schools, with foundational knowledge being a precondition for graduation. This upstream approach should also be reflected in colleges and universities, trade schools and apprenticeships, and in the curricula of engineering and business schools. The Panel recommends that, before starting work, all workers receive a brief primer on their rights and responsibilities in the area of health and safety. A similar recommendation is made with respect to supervisors.

    The content of these primers would be provided to employers free of charge and in multiple formats and languages (in paper format and in downloads for viewing on computers or hand-held devices such as cell phones, smart phones and similar devices). Cost would not be an issue. Indeed, research tells us that there should be a productivity dividend because safe workplaces are more profitable workplaces. A short investment of time would be involved, and employers who already provide the same or better entry-level training would be unaffected by the new requirement.

  • As a general principle, the Panel feels that as risks to workers increase, so should the requirements for standardized, accredited and rigorous training — and penalties for non-compliance. When a company owner, CEO, manager or supervisor sends workers into a highly hazardous situation without adequate training, supervision or safety equipment, thus putting the workers under threat of serious injury or death, there should be severe consequences, with the severity of penalties increasing as the degree of risk to workers increases. The Panel recommends that the same sort of mandatory, standardized and accredited training required in Ontario’s mining and logging sectors be extended to the construction and other high-risk sectors.
  • The current system of delivering health and safety services in Ontario is served by hard-working and passionate professionals. The system is nevertheless fragmented and would benefit from clearer lines of accountability and a single accountable executive responsible for oversight, strategy, prioritization, and performance measurement and reporting.

In response to numerous persuasive and compelling submissions, the Panel has concluded that the provincial prevention mandate should be realigned. It recommends that all prevention activities be more closely integrated, that roles be clearly defined and that there be stronger lines of accountability to a single and accountable Chief Executive responsible for prevention. The Chief Executive would head a prevention organization under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour, and would report directly to the Minister. This executive would work with the Deputy Minister of Labour and a competency-based multi-stakeholder Prevention Council to develop and execute an integrated occupational health and safety strategy for the province. The Chief Executive in concert with the Council would be required to submit an annual report to the Minister of Labour on the performance of the integrated OHS system. The responsibilities of the Executive and the Council would be set out in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The six Health and Safety Associations would continue to operate outside of the ministry structure, but would report to the proposed Chief Executive.

The Chief Executive would be required to develop a system-wide strategic plan, clear priorities and a transparent means of measuring and reporting on performance. In moving to a more integrated and accountable system, the right balance would need to be achieved between the development of more common standards across the delivery organizations, and the maintenance of a sector-sensitive and customer-focused approach to delivery. These proposals would fill a large accountability gap and are considered to be a precondition for success in driving recommendations in other areas of this review.

The Panel also makes recommendations on approaches to implementation, including critical early priorities for action within the first 12 months. This includes the creation of the proposed new prevention organization within the MOL. It is also recommended that an implementation team and an interim Prevention Council be established as soon as possible to work closely with labour and employer stakeholders to implement the critical early priorities.

If this report is fully implemented, every Ontario worker and supervisor will receive mandatory information about workplace rights and responsibilities before they start their job; every construction worker will receive entry-level training on construction site safety; there will be rigorous training standards for workers who work at heights and on other high risk activities there will be tougher penalties for those who place workers at risk of death or serious injury; employers will receive better support in understanding and meeting health and safety standards and greater recognition where these are exceeded; the needs and realities of operating small businesses will be accommodated in labour policies; there will be a renewed prevention organization with focused leadership heading a more integrated, efficient and accountable system; and there will be more information and better protection available for vulnerable workers. More open and transparent consultation with the workplace parties coupled with these and other recommendations in this report will assist in promoting safer and healthier workplaces.