On August 16, the Alberta Government announced that Alberta OHS legislation will undergo its first comprehensive review since it came into effect in 1976, and outlined a public consultation program to obtain input from stakeholders. The Ministry of Labour is examining received submissions with a view to advising the Government.
Some Preliminary Observations
The proposed review, which supersedes the Government's much-delayed review of the OHS Code, could herald a comprehensive overhaul of Alberta's OHS system. At a high level, the Government describes the review as an opportunity to update Alberta's OHS system, taking account of best practices and considering opportunities to make Alberta's legislation more consistent with other Canadian jurisdictions.
In its discussion paper, since removed from the Government's website, the Government identifies three "key areas" where it considers improvements to be necessary: responsibility, worker engagement, and prevention. It makes no recommendations, but singles out some aspects of the current system for comment. We note particularly the following:
- Clarify legislation to more clearly specify workplace rights and responsibilities. The current legislation does not clearly describe the duties of supervisors, self-employed persons or owners, or the rights of workers, making it difficult for these parties to understand their OHS rights and obligations. (The OHS obligations of owners and supervisors were central to the recent Metron prosecutions in Ontario, in which an owner was fined and a supervisor imprisoned following the deaths of four workers.)
- Work site OHS committees. These are an integral part of OHS systems in other provinces, but are generally not a mandatory component of OHS in Alberta. The discussion paper suggests that the Government will consider expanding requirements for workplace OHS committees as a means of improving OHS integration into organizations' operations and for allowing workers to participate in making OHS-related decisions, possibly by requiring OHS committees in workplaces above a certain size.
- Compliance and enforcement. Suggestions in the discussion paper focus on front-line enforcement powers, including expanding OHS officers' power to issue tickets to other parts of the OHS Code, and enhancing officers' power to issue Stop Work/Use orders and the scope of those orders (across a work site, or even across multiple work sites operated by an employer). Other suggestions operate at a higher level, including a suggested requirement for employers to inform Alberta OHS of new business or new projects.
- Small businesses. The discussion paper acknowledges the potentially disproportionate cost to small businesses of OHS compliance, and suggests accommodations such as OHS requirements and worker-engagement levels that respond to the size of the business and its workforce.
- Worker engagement. Improving worker engagement in OHS is another of the Government's clear goals for the review, particularly from the standpoint of ensuring that workers' rights (which are not clearly described in Alberta's current legislation, as they are in some other Canadian jurisdictions) are protected.
- Prevention through non-enforcement mechanisms. The Government solicits comments on ways to improve and build upon its current approach to prevention, which includes public-awareness and knowledge-building programs and partnerships (such as the Work Safe Alberta program).