A recent court case in which an employer allowed workers at risk of COVID-19 to self-regulate their use of face masks serves as a warning to all employers: failure to understand and enforce workplace parties' responsibilities under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) could expose you to prosecutions.
The employer pleaded guilty to failing to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. Compliance failures occurred at every level of the organization. According to an agreed statement of facts:
- the employer enforced COVID-19 screening inconsistently.
- the employer allowed workers to self-regulate mask use.
- some workers didn't report COVID symptoms to supervisors.
- supervisors reported symptoms to management only if they were persistent or required medical attention.
The results were tragic. Three workers were hospitalized with COVID-19, and one of the three died.
"This case is not just about COVID," says WSPS consultant Kellie Harrison. "Many employers may not fully understand their responsibility to communicate and enforce health and safety rules that workers must follow, and supervisors are required to monitor and enforce. I've encountered employers who put time and effort into creating comprehensive safe operating procedures, but if the supervisor doesn't live and breathe and enforce those procedures, then that's when trouble really starts."
Who's responsible for what
The duties of employers, supervisors and workers under Ontario's OHSA are intended to promote a strong internal responsibility system (IRS), where everyone has a role to play in keeping the workplace safe and healthy:
- employers are responsible for ensuring that the IRS is established and promoted, and that it functions successfully. "Health and safety starts at the top with employers," notes Kellie. "If employers can check all the boxes, by which I mean the duties listed in Section 25 of the OHSA, then they have laid the foundation for a safe and healthy workplace.
- supervisors' responsibilities include:
- making workers fully aware of hazards they may encounter, ensuring that they work safely and wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), and
- responding to hazards brought to their attention. "To fulfil these responsibilities, employers must give supervisors the training, resources and tools they require."
- workers' responsibilities include reporting hazards, working safely and following safe work practices, using the required (PPE) for the job at hand, and participating in health and safety programs.
Kellie is quick to acknowledge the challenges workplaces faced at the beginning of the pandemic. "Information and direction were coming from many sources, including the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, Public Health Ontario, the Ministry of Health, and the World Health Organization. But it's in situations like this that we have to be particularly vigilant. It all comes down to fulfilling our responsibilities under the OHSA."
How WSPS can help
Our consultants can provide compliance training, carry out hazard assessments, and deliver on-site or virtual awareness training for supervisors and workers. To learn more, connect with a consultant.
- Duties & Responsibilities (5-minute video for all workplace parties)
- Health and Safety Awareness for Ontario Supervisors (1-hour eCourse)
- Supervisor Responsibilities and Due Diligence (3- to 4-hour eCourse and half-day virtual or classroom training)
- Supervisor Responsibilities and Due Diligence Refresher (free 10-minute eCourse)
- JHSC Certification Part 1 (3-day virtual or classroom training)
- Safety Health and the Law (1-day virtual or classroom training)
- Duties & Responsibilities: for Employers (fact sheet)
- OHSA Ontario & Employers Responsibilities (article)
- OHS for Supervisors - Everything You Need to Know (article)
- Understanding Legislation (article)
- Internal Responsibility System (IRS) Primer
- Are your employees getting the right health and safety training? (Federal; article)
- Are your employees getting the right health and safety training? (First Nations Community based workplaces; article)
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.