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Better Protection for Vulnerable Workers

  • Issued: December 16, 2010
  • Content last reviewed: December 2010

Vulnerable workers, in the context of the OHS system review, are those who have a greater exposure than most workers to conditions hazardous to health or safety and who lack the power to alter those conditions. During the course of this review, stakeholders identified a number of subgroups of the general workforce as being vulnerable. The Panel heard most often about young workers; recent immigrants; workers new to their jobs or in new firms; foreign workers hired to address temporary or seasonal labour shortages, and employed primarily in agriculture, the hotel/hospitality and construction sectors; workers with very low wages holding multiple part-time jobs; and workers in the temporary staffing industry.

Worker vulnerability arises for various reasons: not knowing one’s rights under the OHSA, such as the right to refuse unsafe work; having no work experience or training that is job- or hazard-specific; and being unable to exercise rights or raise health and safety concerns for fear of losing one’s job, or in some cases, being deported.

Several of the Panel’s recommendations in other sections of this report would improve the health and safety of all workers but especially those who are vulnerable. If implemented, recommendations for mandatory health and safety awareness training before starting work and for hazard-specific training would help address the higher rate of injuries known to occur among new workers, and also benefit young workers and recent immigrants who tend to be disproportionately employed in physically demanding or hazardous jobs. Requiring that supervisors be trained would help ensure that they understand their additional responsibilities regarding workers in hazardous jobs, especially those who are young, new or temporary. Similarly, recommendations to strengthen protection from reprisals are critical to enabling vulnerable workers to exercise their rights and speak up about health and safety concerns.

In 2000, the OHS system made young workers a priority. Since then, efforts to protect them (including education, aggressive public awareness campaigns and targeted enforcement) have brought about significant and measurable improvements: a 45 per cent decline in the lost-time injury rate for teenagers by 2008. In general, however, protecting vulnerable workers, especially those who do not have English as a first language, presents challenges to the OHS system. These challenges relate to outreach, identifying where they work, providing meaningful information and services and enforcing legislation. There are many public and private organizations that support vulnerable members of society and that the OHS system could use as valuable points of access or influence.

In this section of the report, the Panel makes recommendations on advising the Minister of Labour of issues pertaining to vulnerable workers, targeted enforcement, raising awareness and protecting farm workers. Some other issues regarding vulnerable workers, which are not the subject of recommendations, are described in a later section, Additional Issues, for future consideration.

Recommendation 29

The Minister of Labour should appoint a committee under Section 21 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to provide advice on matters related to the occupational health and safety of vulnerable workers.

An advisory committee appointed under Section 21 of the OHSA would improve the OHS system’s ability to respond to the needs of vulnerable workers. It would be a standing forum for consulting parties who are knowledgeable about vulnerable workers and have a role in protecting them. Such a committee could include representatives of labour and employer groups from sectors with precarious employment; immigrant and refugee support agencies; community and social service agencies; legal clinics; other ministries; and federal and municipal programs. Specific matters about which the committee could provide advice include implementing the Panel’s recommendations, improving enforcement strategies and developing and distributing awareness materials.

Recommendation 30

The Ministry of Labour should carry out more proactive inspections and periodic enforcement campaigns at workplaces and in sectors where vulnerable workers are concentrated.

To be effective, outreach and awareness initiatives must be supported by proactive follow-up or enforcement. Successful implementation of this recommendation will depend upon the MOL having access to current and reliable information on vulnerable workers. To inform its enforcement strategies regarding workplaces and sectors where vulnerable workers are concentrated, the MOL should solicit the advice of the Section 21 committee, if established, and should consult stakeholders and cultivate potential sources of information outside the OHS system.

Recommendation 31

The occupational health and safety system should develop information products in multiple languages and formats for distribution through various media and organizations to raise awareness of occupational health and safety among vulnerable workers.

To raise awareness of occupational health and safety among vulnerable workers, information products could be aimed at the workplace, the community and at specific subgroups of the general workforce.

The Panel notes that Section 25(2)(i) of the OHSA requires the employer to post a copy of the Act in the workplace and “any explanatory material prepared by the Ministry, both in English and the majority language of the workplace, outlining the rights, responsibilities and duties of workers.” The Panel recommends that the MOL develop explanatory material in the form of a poster translated into multiple languages and available at no or low cost (further described in the Information and Resources section of this report). Mandatory posting would raise awareness of the OHSA among all workers but would benefit vulnerable workers in particular.

To further raise awareness of workplace health and safety issues, the Panel recommends that the OHS system develop basic information on both the OHSA and the WSIA in multiple languages and formats and distribute it in ways that will reach vulnerable workers at the community level. Many options exist for distribution through public and private organizations: at settlement and service agencies for newcomers; on government websites aimed at prospective immigrants; through federal administrators and offshore recruiters of temporary foreign workers; at consulates; in ethnic newspaper, radio and television ads; in public places like libraries, buses/subways and community centres; at legal aid clinics; as part of the curriculum in English or French as a Second Language courses; and through the school system, recognizing that children will take information home to their parents. Such efforts would be an effective way to reach people with poor language or literacy skills as well as those who may be reluctant to visit government offices.

Recommendation 32

The Ministry of Labour should develop regulations in consultation with stakeholders in the farming community to control the key hazards associated with farm work.

Farming is generally recognized as a dangerous occupation. A recent report from the Canadian Agricultural Injury Surveillance Program (CAISP) stated that agriculture ranks as the third most hazardous industry in Canada with respect to fatality rates. CAISP data show recurrent patterns of agricultural injury; for example, between 1990 and 2005, about 71 per cent of fatalities on farms involved some type of machinery.

In Ontario, the OHSA was extended to farms in 2006, with some conditions. One of these conditions is that farms are exempt from most of the regulations under the OHSA, including the regulations that automatically apply to any workplace covered by the OHSA. Instead, guidelines developed by the OHS system are used to address specific hazards related to tractors, mechanical equipment, animal handling, hazardous atmospheres, confined spaces, falls, lockout procedures and occupational disease. These guidelines can be enforced under the general duty of employers to take all reasonable precautions for the protection of workers.

The Panel supports stronger health and safety protection for farm workers. This could be achieved by extending some existing regulations under the OHSA — for example, the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) Regulation — to farms and/or by developing new regulatory provisions specific to farms to govern key hazards that are currently the subject of guidelines. Any new regulations to require mandatory training for workers and supervisors, as recommended in this report, should also apply to farms.

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