Les Leyne: Work-safety rules get tougher

Les Leyne mugshot genericA month after the B.C. Liberals re-committed to eliminating red tape and holding the line on regulatory creep, Jobs Minister Shirley Bond introduced the first bill of the spring legislative session.

It makes way for pages of new requirements on employers and new powers for government to come down hard on companies that ignore rules. Just the thing to cause faces to turn pale among the business group that gives the B.C. Liberals trophies for cutting red tape.

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No contradiction at all, said Bond. There’s a big difference between useless red tape and badly needed employment-standards reform aimed at improving worker safety.

And under the “net zero” increase policy the Liberals are trying to follow, all she has to do to comply is find a bunch of useless regulations that equal the volume of the new ones she just introduced, and axe them.

The new employment standards flow from the report on WorkSafe B.C. conducted by Gordon Macatee after the botched investigation into the fatal Babine and Lakeland sawmill explosions. The agency mishandled the cases to the point where charges weren’t considered possible because the evidence was obtained improperly. So the mill owners faced only administrative penalties.

That prompted a wholesale review of WorkSafe. Macatee’s recommendations go well beyond the combustible-sawdust issue that was at the heart of the accidents. The report urged a revamp of the entire investigation and enforcement regime. The legislation reflecting his report will give the watchdog agency a whole new row of teeth, for use on any employer in the province. There’s a suite of “forceful tools” to deal with egregious, wilful and repeat offenders.

It’s not uncommon for WorkSafe to levy fines on certain employers only to see them ignored or bypassed. The employer goes out of business, pops up under a new name and carries on. The legislation would give the agency more power to chase them down.

It allows the agency to seek snap injunctions from the courts to shut down companies that flout safety rules. It also expands the court’s authority to bar the worst offenders from operating in an industry. The bill also allows for on-the-spot fines for less-serious contraventions.

Several process changes are made to shorten the period for issuing and reviewing employer penalties, to make them more effective.

The government was urged in the report to consider allowing for direct fines of employees caught without the protective gear required for their job. The idea was considered, but rejected.

New timeframes are imposed on significant investigations. Employers will have 48 hours to do a preliminary investigation into an incident. And prevention measures will have to be taken while full investigations are underway.

Those have to be completed within 30 days, with some exceptions.

As well, the bill expands the number of directors by two, to nine. The two new ones will be required to have a legal or law-enforcement background, or some health and safety background. The existing board was considered too weighted toward the claims and insurance side of the operation.

Macatee’s report found WorkSafeBC’s enforcement regime had a range of soft tools and some hard punitive ones, but little in between that would allow for a kind of gradually escalating enforcement system.

He said this week that legislation coming in just six months after his report amounts to a swift response from government. Apart from the legislation, WorkSafe has made assorted other changes since his report landed.

Among them: WorkSafe used to have 16 prevention officers available for night or weekend duty. Those are times when employees are considered more vulnerable to accidents. Macatee said 26 more are now available for those shifts.

Bond said she’ll follow through on the net-zero policy by looking elsewhere for regulations not related to health and safety to eliminate. But the new requirements introduced this week are obviously needed.

“We make no apologies for ensuring there’s appropriate worker protection legislation,” she said.

The deregulation drive was always aimed at “useless red tape,” she said, and health and safety regulations and environmental protection were always considered exempt from that policy.

The bill will likely get smooth passage through the house. The only question is why it took so long.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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