Federal government moving backwards in workplace safety

April 28, 2010

On April 28, the National Day of Mourning for workers killed on the job, we are reminded that although workplace injuries and fatalities may be accidents, they are preventable.  While preventing injuries and deaths benefits both employer and employee, it is always left to government to create and enforce regulatory regimes that keep Canadians safe.

Many Canadians may not realize that the federal government has significant health and safety responsibilities. Unfortunately, federal underfunding and understaffing of safety inspectors are putting employees of federal departments, crown corporations and cross-provincial companies, such as trucking, air transport, banking and the like, in harm’s way.

The rate of disabling injuries in federally regulated workplaces increased by 5% between 2002 and 2007 while the provinces have managed to cut their disabling workplace injuries by an average of 25% over the same time frame.

The freezing of departmental budgets in the 2010 federal budget is already having tangible effects in an inability to improve safety in the workplace. With its budget frozen, HRSDC has no additional resources to beef up inspections and keep Canadians safe.  Workers, among others, will pay the price for indiscriminate budget freezes.

 There aren’t nearly enough federal inspectors to make the number of recommended visits to very high and high risk worksites.  In 2006-07, only 16% of the very high risk workplaces received the requisite two visits a year and only 10% of high risk workplaces received their requisite one visit.

As of 2004 there was one federal inspector overseeing 7000 employees. By 2007, HRSDC worsened the situation, having only one inspector per 8000 employees. The situation has degenerated to the point where “telephone inspections” are now routine.

Many provinces have made concerted efforts to reduce workplace injuries by targeting high risk workplaces and hiring substantially more inspectors.  Unfortunately for federal jurisdiction workers—particularly those working in trucking or at Canada Post—HRSDC continues to provide its inspectors with inadequate support.

One of the more troubling and neglected areas for workplace safety is First Nation’s reserves.  While reserves fall under the prevue of federal labour laws, the inspectors have implicit instructions not to visit employers on reserves and provide health and safety rights.  HRSDC does not appear willing to work with First Nation’s reserves to provide health and safety inspections and enforcement.  In effect, those working on reserves are left without the same workplace rights that all other Canadians enjoy.

HRSDC needs to get serious about workplace safety and strive for a 20% reduction in workplace injuries over 5 years through the targeting of high risk workplace and the hiring of more inspectors.  It particularly needs to crack down on its own departments and crown corporations, which have some of the worst records for flouting the rules and putting workers in harm’s way.  Finally, HRSDC needs to develop a strategy for providing workplace safety to First Nation reserves which are currently without workplace safety inspections.

Canadians expect their governments to create and enforce strong regulations that keep them safe both at work and at home.  The federal government is falling far short of what Canadians expect.

David Macdonald is an Ottawa-based economist and research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.