Alberta’s new Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laws may be the ultimate business conundrum.
Of course, the health and safety of people in the workplace is the most important fact of business life, and a crucial priority.
The dilemma is that, no matter how relevant, defined and targeted, too many rules can become a workplace problem.
Last June, major changes were made to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS). It was the first comprehensive overhaul of Alberta’s workplace health and safety laws in more than 42 years.
The laws were not only expanded but included new obligations and enhanced enforcement provisions for Alberta employers. Some of the key new rules include:
- Obligations on a wider range of worksite parties, including supervisors, self-employed persons, trainers, consultants and other service providers.
- Enhanced rights for workers to refuse unsafe work, to participate in workplace health and safety decisions and to be consulted in hazard assessments.
- The key area about harassment and violence in the workplace. Employers and supervisors are obligated to ensure no worker is subject to – or participates in – harassment or violence at any worksite.
Some health and safety experts consider the Alberta update a much-needed business evolution. “Awareness about workplace health and safety has changed,” says Steve T. Eichler, partner and OHS lawyer at Calgary’s Field Law, one of the largest business law firms in Canada with offices in Calgary, Edmonton and Yellowknife. “Even the term ‘OHS’ is now commonplace. It may be this era’s seatbelt: just like the paradigm shift regarding use of seatbelts from our grandparents’ day to our children – the former would resist using seatbelts but the latter wouldn’t dream of not doing so – we are undergoing a societal change whereby worker safety is absolutely considered a vital right.”
Nearing the first anniversary of Alberta’s new and updated OHS rules, some business insiders constructively caution that too many clauses and too many rules (especially for smaller businesses) could be counterproductive and overlooked.
“Over-regulation can have negative effects,” says Richard Truscott, vice president, B.C. and Alberta for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). “Particularly on small and medium-sized businesses that may not be equipped to navigate a quagmire of rules.
“Too often, governments use a one-size-fits-all approach to OHS rules. While a big business typically has expertise and resources to ensure compliance, for a small business, it’s a different reality. Every industry is different, and business owners should be given a reasonable amount of flexibility to best manage health and safety in their workplace.”
The one-rule-fits-all approach is also an unworkable problem for respected health and safety expert Sean Stinson, vice president of product management and sales with Calgary-based Blackline Safety, a globally-respected and industry-leading supplier of wirelessly-connected gas detection and lone-worker monitoring products. “Alberta’s OHS laws leave a lot of room for interpretation and this tends to drive complacency in a lot of areas. The government’s safety infrastructure isn’t large enough to make a set of very specific rules that can be applied to all businesses, so in some ways, it’s necessary to have vague rules.”
He cites the oil and gas industry as an example of the tremendous impact of technology on workplace health and safety. “With new and affordable technology, it’s very easy to monitor employee safety as well as hazardous gases or fumes in the working environment. Over time, a company can assess risk and improve things to show that their mitigation is responsible. For example, Blackline Safety offers gas and fall detection, lone-worker safety and 24-7 emergency response as an all-in-one solution.”
Health and safety experts like Eichler, Stinson and Truscott are positive and optimistic but share opinions that new rules and regulations don’t necessary translate into safer workplaces.
“Besides, high-performing companies have a safety culture that will always operate beyond what the law is asking for,” Stinson adds. “They are more concerned with being the best at what they do, which includes not hurting their most valuable assets – their people.
“The OHS rules are more critical for the less-mature business, ones that either don’t understand the risk, don’t think the risk will manifest or don’t have the bandwidth to perform work safely. Even in these cases, the rules are ineffective by themselves.”
With Blackline’s vast expertise, particularly in the oil and gas industry, Stinson makes the point that the challenge may be how to find the time and budget to keep or improve safety culture in a company because, in some smaller organizations – perhaps caused by the price of oil – safety has really taken a back seat to the company’s survival.
“When margins are thin, safety is one of the first things to go. When people are tired, they make more mistakes and have more justification to just get the job done versus getting it done safely. We hear it over and over, that for the safety manager, the biggest challenge is changing policies, culture or attitudes. How to change things without a budget or when people are burned out.
“Enforcement is what matters,” he emphasizes. “The threat of loss that is required to make doing the job safely more important than just getting the work done.”
Eichler points out another important aspect of the new laws surrounding definitions: how the new rules will work and how participation in workplace safety will happen.
Every worksite with more than 20 workers must now have a Joint Work Site Health and Safety Committee made up of equal employer and worker participants to ensure health and safety. Worksites of between five to 19 workers must have a Joint Work Site Health and Safety representative. “And the definitions now include new types of workplace hazards. Bullying and harassment are now workplace hazards and require a hazard assessment to ensure worker safety,” he says.
CFIB’s Rick Truscott adds that introducing a long list of new rules is important but, by itself, likely can’t change much. “The key is to help create a culture of safety in workplaces across Alberta through more effective education, resources and tools for employers. Enforcement largely continues as before, with possible consequences including ticketing, orders, administrative penalties and prosecution.
“There has been an extension of offences under the act to match the expanded obligations. There are also increases in the maximum fines following a conviction, and an extension to the limitation period for charges to be laid.”
As CFIB continues to remind its members, it is vitally important – and up to individual employers – to learn what the new rules entail and how it will affect their businesses.
Eichler points out that Alberta’s previous government did update safety legislation and applied some proactive steps to increase engagement. “While there is some logic behind that, since employers can incentivize or penalize workers – behaviour modification towards safety – there is some balance missing: employers are facing more and more obligations and requirements which may ultimately be a deterrent for a true embrace of a safety culture.
“The multiple jurisdictions and tension between safety, privacy and human rights obligations also make for tricky balancing acts for employers and others.”
As businesses interpret and implement Alberta’s new OHS laws, Truscott looks forward to the impact on some specific contemporary workplace areas.
“Key policy areas for future consideration by regulators will include continued development of harassment and violence prevention, protecting and promoting psychological and mental health in the workplace and addressing impairment,” he says, “especially now that recreational cannabis use has been legalized.”