Recently, courts across Canada seem to be expanding the
application and coverage of occupational health and safety
legislation - providing broad and liberal interpretations of
legislation. But that may be changing. The decision in Ontario (Ministry of Labour) v. Sheehan's
Truck Centre Inc. is being welcomed by many as an
indication that the protective purpose of the regulatory scheme
cannot override the actual words used in the legislation.
Employee Run Over
A company that owned and operated a highway tractor-truck sales
business offered units for sale in its parking lot. While the
company was expanding the parking lot, four employees were directed
to move a number of the truck units in the parking lot from one
area to another. The movement was required to facilitate paving
work relating to the expansion.
One of the employees attempted to move a 25 foot long truck
unit, which was designed to attach to a cargo trailer. While the
driver was attempting to backup the truck unit, it got stuck.
Another employee approached the first and told him that he would
clear the obstructing aggregate from behind the truck unit. It
appears that the driver misunderstood because while the second
employee was clearing the obstruction, the driver reversed the
truck unit and drove over the worker, causing him serious
The Ontario Ministry of Labour laid charges under the Industrial
Regulations pursuant to a section that requires a signaller when a
driver does not have a full view of the intended path of travel.
This provision states "when the operator of a vehicle, mobile
equipment, crane or similar material handling equipment
does not have full view of the intended path of travel of the
vehicle, mobile equipment, crane or similar material handling
equipment or its load, the vehicle, mobile equipment, crane or
similar material handling equipment shall only be operated as
directed by a signaller".
Lower Court Decisions
The company argued, at trial, that a signaller was not required
because the vehicle in question had to be related to "material
handling" and, in this case, it was not. The trial judge agreed that the truck unit was not
a "vehicle or material handling equipment" within the
meaning of the Regulation and found the company not guilty.
The government appealed the trial judge's decision, arguing
that the provision applied to all vehicles used in industrial
establishments, whether they constituted "material handling
equipment" or not. They argued that the issue was whether the
operator of the vehicle had a blind spot preventing a full view of
the vehicle's intended path of travel.
The appeal judge agreed with the government and
said that the vehicle did not have to be involved in actual
handling of materials at the time. In the judge's view, because
the intended use of the truck unit was for material handling, once
the trailer was attached to it, it fell within the relevant section
and a signaller was required.
Court of Appeal Decision
The company appealed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. The
Court of Appeal agreed with the first judge, that the
Regulations do not apply to road vehicles in industrial
establishments that are not typically or actually used to handle
Important for employers, the Court of Appeal discussed several
recent decisions in the occupational health and safety context
where courts generously interpreted the statute and the
regulations. In spite of these decisions, the Court of Appeal said
that the protective purpose of the legislative scheme is not the
"only consideration when attempting to ascertain the
scope" of specific legislative provisions. Instead, the words
in the legislation must be "interpreted in the entire context
in which they are used and in accordance with their grammatical and
ordinary sense, having regard to the purpose of the Regulation and
the Act as a whole".
Words Have Meaning
This decision confirms that the wording of occupational health
and safety legislation must be carefully scrutinized. It is not
appropriate to allow a liberal and expansive interpretation of such
wording on the basis that it is necessary to achieve the public
policy purposes of such legislation. Instead, the actual words of
the legislation should be considered and applied. Given this is a
Court of Appeal decision, it will likely affect how courts in other
provinces apply their occupational health and safety
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