On Wednesday, April 8th, Ontario announced several new measures focusing on occupational health and safety at essential workplaces that continue to operate during the COVID-19 crisis. The newly announced measures will ramp up the province's health and safety enforcement capacity in response to the unprecedented demands of the crisis.
Essential workplaces are those of businesses Ontario has designated as "essential," thereby exempting them from the province's emergency order generally requiring all other, non-essential places of business to shut. The Government has ordered that a person responsible for an essential workplace that continues to operate is to ensure that the business operates in accordance with all applicable laws, including the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the regulations made under it, and in compliance with the advice, recommendations and instructions of public health officials.
The five new measures announced by the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development are as follows:
- Inviting recently retired health and safety inspectors to come back to work;
- Redeploying over 30 employment standards officers to help businesses understand and comply with health and safety requirements;
- Deploying 30 specialists from health and safety associations to support employers and employees in the field;
- Issuing more health and safety guidance notes to support particular sectors; and
- Doubling the capacity of Ontario's health and safety call centre from 25 phone lines to 50.
The Minister has said the end result of these measures will be more health and safety inspections at essential workplaces, more capacity for workers to voice concerns, and more capacity for the government to follow up on their reports.
Health and safety inspectors are responsible for enforcing compliance with health and safety legislation in provincially-regulated workplaces in Ontario and have broad regulatory powers to address non-compliance, such as issuing orders to workplace parties. Workplace parties may also potentially face charges for non-compliance with legislation, with substantial fines and even incarceration as potential outcomes in certain circumstances in the event of a conviction for an occupational health and safety related offence.
According to the Ministry, inspectors conducted over 5,000 workplace inspections last month. The Minister of Labour has called inspectors "unsung heroes" of the pandemic and vowed the province's health and safety blitz will continue. The Minister has said inspectors will work with employers and employees to resolve issues, and shut down businesses where warranted.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act ("OHSA") places duties on all workplace parties, including a duty on employers to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers' health and safety. In response to Ontario's newly announced information and enforcement measures, essential businesses should review their health and safety policies and practices to ensure they meet legal requirements and are informed by public health recommendations. Looking ahead, as the COVID-19 crisis continues and evolves, employers whose businesses continue to operate will be grappling with the challenging health and safety implications of COVID-19 for some time to come.
Please do not hesitate to contact one of the members of our Labour & Employment Group if you have questions about complying with your duties under occupational health and safety legislation during the current crisis, dealing with workplace inspections, orders or prosecutions or about the broader impacts COVID-19 is having on your business.
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