Small businesses have long been identified as presenting unique challenges to the effective and efficient implementation of occupational health and safety in the workplace. From the other end of the telescope, government regulation has long been identified as presenting challenges for small business owners. A number of factors have been identified in research as contributing to this, but two important factors are the limited human resource capacity of the owner to apply time and effort to it and the absence of guidance and support materials that are relevant to the language, culture and business/organizational situation of small businesses. The infrequent occurrence of worker injury in a small business (estimated to be one injury every 7 to 10 years) can lead the employer to conclude that adequate measures and precautions are in place. The Panel recognizes that while the focus of small business considerations is generally directed towards owners, effective support for the health and safety of workers in small businesses is needed.
In response to submissions from stakeholders regarding issues affecting small business, as well as a formal presentation to the Panel by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), the Panel formed a subcommittee to further research the issues. The subcommittee reviewed the information provided by the CFIB and gathered scientific research and information on health and safety programs targeted at small business in Ontario. This information was subsequently considered by the Panel in formulating these recommendations.
Panel members agreed to view possible recommendations through a small business lens when considering their feasibility and implementation impact on small business. For example, recommendations in the report related to training and educational resource materials have considered cost, availability and relevance for small business owners and workers. These factors have been identified where applicable in the recommendations below.
The issues affecting small business are consistently identified in research and management literature as being different from medium or large businesses. These issues also frequently change as a result of economic and technological changes. A concern raised by small business advocates is that government doesn’t understand or try to understand the needs of owners and workers in small business. A small business advisory committee appointed under Section 21 of the OHSA would provide a mechanism for the government to get a better understanding of these needs on a regular and ongoing basis.
A number of Section 21 committees currently exist in various sectors and are generally composed of labour and employer members. Their activities include preparing guidance material, identifying emerging health and safety issues, and advising on the development of regulation and enforcement strategies. All these activities would appear relevant for a small business advisory committee. Special effort will be needed to bring into this forum the voice of unrepresented workers employed in small business.
Small businesses’ needs, and when and how they fulfil those needs, are different from those of medium and large businesses. A small business Section 21 committee can provide advice on many of these issues, but effective support is still dependant upon delivery by people and organizations that understand small business needs. Those who interact with small business on the front line require specific skills and knowledge of the nature and functioning of small work organizations. This knowledge and experience needs to be built up over time and can be quite a challenge for individuals who spend time with all sizes of employers.
The assignment of staff dedicated to enforcement and prevention activities for the small business sector allows for closer collaboration and co-operation in the development of programs and services for small business. Such staff would better relate to small business but would also have greater credibility in the sector. This credibility is likely, in the long term, to be as important in supporting small business as any specific program or content of such program. It provides for relationship-building with individual employers and workers as well as with the sector as a whole. It also supports the acquisition and transfer of knowledge about the sector and provides for long-term continuity and commitment in this area beyond what periodic initiatives can attain. As noted elsewhere in this report, where the degree of risk is low and employers are actively looking for support in achieving compliance, they should be supported to the extent possible.
The primary role of MOL inspectors is to conduct inspections and investigations to determine compliance with the OHSA. This tends to result in inspectors focussing on contraventions and referring the employer to other organizations to get assistance in taking the corrective action needed. Numerous stakeholders, including small business representatives, say that deferring assistance can produce delays in achieving compliance as well as unnecessary costs, particularly where the required changes may be straightforward. Stakeholders also stated that compliance discussions with inspectors can result in greater confidence that changes made will meet the legal requirements.
Some inspectors say that a singular focus on enforcement places them in an adversarial relationship with employers and that this results in an unhealthy situation in the long run. Many employers feel they would benefit from an open and non-confrontational relationship with inspectors. However, an increased role in compliance assistance for inspectors should not interfere with the inspector’s duty to enforce the law. Where assertive enforcement is needed to achieve compliance, inspectors should take the appropriate enforcement steps necessary. Any move towards inspectors providing greater compliance assistance should balance these considerations.
The availability of guidance material, codes of practice and other compliance support tools from inspectors on key health and safety issues at the time of inspection is seen as one way to accomplish this. Properly developed materials reviewed for accuracy and clarity could provide greater certainty for compliance and reduce the risk of negligence concerns should something go wrong. Developing a compliance assistance policy for inspectors would provide greater consistency in advice and greater certainty for inspectors on what issues they should provide assistance. Such a policy would demonstrate organizational support for inspectors and would help balance resource capacity between inspection activity and compliance support.