A Commentary by Wendy Ferguson – BHRLR, CPHR
After 40 years the OHS Act has finally been overhauled, and come this June expect to be affected by the changes. These changes are the result of an in-depth review of the Alberta OHS system and the WCB system which triggered Bill 30 – An Act to Protect the Health and Wellbeing of Working Albertans which was passed in December. The revamped OHS Act will align Albertans with the same rights and protections as other Canadians have had for some time. We won’t go another 40 years without a review again…the OHS has committed to reviewing the Act every 5 years going forward.
Are the changes extensive? Well…the Occupational Health and Safety Act has gone from 47 subsections to a 13-part, 102 subsection Act, so YES, it’s relevant and will require employers to spend time reviewing and understanding its contents. But for now, I want to highlight a few of the more significant changes that will impact your organization in just a couple of months.
Obligations of Work Site Parties
The work relationship looks much different than it did decades ago. The new Act is more explicit in listing the obligations for all modern work site parties: employers, supervisors, workers, suppliers, service providers, owners, contractors, prime contractors, self-employed individuals and temporary staffing agencies.
Workers – Workers were always expected to take reasonable care to protect the health and safety of themselves and other workers present and to cooperate with employers to protect the health and safety of all. The new Act requires the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) designated and provided for the worker’s protection by the employer. It also states that workers must refrain from causing or participating in harassment or violence. Workers are also now protected from losing compensation or benefits if they refuse unsafe work.
Employers – Again, employers were always responsible for the health and safety of their workers and those present at the work site. However, now employers must ensure that workers are supervised by a person who is competent and familiar with the OHS Act and the regulations and the OHS code that apply to the work performed at the site. Employers are also obligated to ensure that none of their workers are subjected to or participate in harassment or violence at the work site. Employers must resolve reported health and safety concerns raised by workers in a timely manner. As well, every employer must ensure that workers are adequately trained in all matters necessary to protect their health and safety prior to beginning a work activity, performing a new work activity, using new equipment, performing a new process, or moving to a new work site.
Supervisors – This is a new section and puts much onus on Supervisors to maintain a safe workplace. As above, a Supervisor must be able to demonstrate competence, take all precautions necessary to protect the health and safety of his/her workers, ensure workers use all hazard controls and the proper use of all PPE, ensure no worker is subjected to violence or harassment, advise all workers of all known or foreseeable safety hazards and of course, report to the employer any concern about unsafe or harmful work.
Owners – The person who is registered under the Land Titles Act, as the owner of the land on which the work is being carried out, must ensure that the land, infrastructure and any building on the premises is provided and maintained in a manner that does not endanger the health and safety of workers or others.
Contractors, Self-Employed Persons and Temp Staff Agencies – In a nutshell, they will be responsible for ensuring their work does not endanger others and that they comply with the OHS Act.
New Mandate on Joint Work Site Health and Safety Committees & Health and Safety Representatives
If more than 20 workers carrying out work by more than 2 employers (or self-employed persons) on a work site be required to have a joint worksite Health and Safety Committee for work lasting more than 90 days. The duties of the committee are detailed in the Act.
Employers with 5 to 19 workers will be required to have a designated Health and Safety Representative for work lasting more than 90 days. The duties of the Representative are detailed in the Act.
New Requirements for Health and Safety Programs
Employers that have more than 20 workers must have a written Health and Safety Program and it must be reviewed every 3 years.
Employers with less than 20 workers must involve their workers in hazard assessment and control.
The Alberta government must be notified when a serious injury, incident or fatality occurs. This is to ensure proper investigation and to prevent future occurrences. The new threshold for reporting will be any injury that requires admission to a hospital (not two days admitted as in the past). Employers are also required to report “near misses” that had the potential to cause a serious injury or incident.
Enforcement & Penalties
OHS continues to have the power to conduct inspections and investigations and to issue stop-work orders to remedy unhealthy or unsafe work conditions. If it is determined that a person has failed to comply with an order or a decision pursuant to the Act, administrative penalties can be issued. These penalties remain unchanged from the previous Act and may be up to $10,000/day for failure to comply. Failure to report an injury or incident, obstruction or failing to be cooperative may result in fines from $500k to $1 million and even imprisonment.
Small businesses will need to consider their health and safety options. I recommend starting with the Occupational Health and Safety Tool Kit for Small Businesses that can be found on work.alberta.ca. For larger organizations, sophisticated safety management software will be necessary to track and report incidents to comply with OHS requirements. Not to mention the need to develop comprehensive health and safety education programs for almost everyone. Adding accountabilities with respect to harassment and violence is new to the act and needs to be understood by everyone at work. The nature of the workplace has changed drastically over the past five decades and it was time for change. But now there is much to do!