60,000 visits into the pandemic: what workplace inspectors are finding
Since the pandemic began, inspectors with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development have conducted 60,000 field visits, with more in the works. They’re focusing on compliance with COVID requirements, but these trained professionals also keep a constant eye out for other possible hazards and compliance infractions.
Earlier this month we spoke with Jules Arntz-Gray, Director of the ministry’s Occupational Health and Safety Branch about inspections in the COVID era.
What are inspectors focusing on during inspections?
The key thing we are looking for is whether there are controls in place to protect workers from the hazard of COVID infections. Early in 2021, we launched our "Stay Safe All Day" campaign, which focuses not just on the areas where work is regularly done but also on areas of high transmission, such as break rooms. The campaign is about the need to consider COVID controls throughout the workday.
Most workplaces have controls in place. For instance, they're masking and physically distancing, they've installed plexiglass barriers, and they're doing enhanced cleaning. But what we found was that when people were on break - in the lunchroom or outside for a smoke - they weren't following the controls as much.
This is just one example of our proactive work. We regularly use data and field intelligence to make sure we are visiting high priority workplaces and sectors.
How are inspectors approaching COVID violations?
Most non-compliance is actually to do with a lack of awareness or a misunderstanding on how to address the hazard. That is why we approach our proactive field visits as an opportunity to educate. Our focus is to let workplaces know what they need to be doing to keep their workplaces safe. Our aim isn’t to catch people out of compliance, we want to help them become compliant.
Even if we write an order, it's not punitive. It's just a note saying, "Hey, we've noticed this non-compliance and here is the time frame you have to fix it."*
How compliant are Ontario workplaces today with safety plans?
We're finding that word has gotten out about the requirement to have a COVID safety plan, and if workplaces have a plan, it's usually relatively good.** The issue is with workplaces that don’t have a plan or the plan isn't accessible to workers or to the public if required.
Evidence tells us that workplaces demonstrating a strong Internal Responsibility System and actively engaging their Joint Health & Safety Committees (JHSC) and health and safety representatives have been able to identify gaps and enhance measures to protect workers, leading to fewer workplace-acquired outbreaks than were seen in Wave 1 of the pandemic.
In fact, most orders written now are usually about non-COVID issues, such as lifting devices, workplace violence and harassment, material handling, machine guarding, housekeeping, JHSCs and health and safety reps, WHMIS and Safety Data Sheets, and awareness training.
Is the ministry starting to look beyond COVID at other priorities?
We absolutely are, but the driver right now remains public health indicators, and at the moment we are seeing a positive trend in a number of these indicators.
We expect that in the fall or early winter we may be in a position to start focusing on other hazards. It depends in part on whether a fourth wave occurs, or other variants emerge.
It’s all data driven. We're always thinking tactically and strategically, and every year we do significant planning that focuses on compliance initiatives that could have the greatest possible impact on workplace health and safety.
In non-pandemic times, the ministry publishes an annual schedule of compliance initiatives. What's the purpose behind this?
The point is to communicate rather than rely on what I would call a "gotcha" culture, where inspectors show up and write orders or tickets that lead to prosecutions.
Communication is one of our greatest compliance tools. Resources, guidance, webinars… all these things help workplaces be in compliance.
We know employers don't want their workers hurt; they want to do the right thing. The main issue is that employers may not know what they need to do, or they misunderstand how to fix a shortcoming. And so by telling them, 'Here are the issues of concern, and here is what is required to fix it,' we're achieving our provincial aims and helping workplaces meet their aims, which is for their workers to go home safe every day.
The last thing I'd like to say is that if you do get a visit from an inspector, remember that their aim isn’t to catch you out. It's to point out safety issues and help you fix them.
In a way it's like getting a free consultation. Inspectors are highly trained professionals who at no cost to you walk through the workplace and point out opportunities for improvement. 'Hey, this machine, you probably need a better guard on it.' Or, 'This chemical, did you know that you need some training on it?' Then they may leave you an order, which is just something saying, 'Please get this fixed by such and such date.' Afterward, you can even call and ask questions.
Check out these essential online resources
To help workplaces prevent exposure to COVID-19, WSPS and the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development have developed several hundred resources, including articles, posters, tools, checklists and guidelines. Give yourself time to browse through the offerings, and share these links with others in your workplace.
* For the wilfully non-compliant, penalties exist. Corporations may be fined $1,000 for failing to comply with the orders under the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act and the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. Individuals, including employees and patrons, may also be fined $750 for failing to comply with orders under the acts.
** A safety plan documents what your workplace needs to do to minimize the risk of transmitting COVID-19 and how you're going to do it. To help you create your plan, the province has a guideline and a downloadable template. WSPS also has useful resources, including a number of sector-specific sample plans.
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.