To our great surprise, First Reference recently got a visit from an Ontario Ministry of Labour Occupational Health and Safety Inspector. I knew we had nothing to worry about; however, it’s still unnerving when an inspector comes knocking at the door.
Reducing the number of injured workers has become a major priority in Ontario, and also in other jurisdictions. Since 2004, the Ontario government has introduced major education, training and enforcement initiatives to assist workplaces in improving their health and safety performance. The government has invested millions of dollars and hired hundreds of Health and Safety Inspectors to encourage workplaces to get into compliance and to reduce injuries. The basic reason is that reducing injuries makes good business sense.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour enforces the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and Regulations in partnership with the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB) and several Health and Safety Associations.
In addition, Ontario’s Regulatory Modernization Act synchronizes government departments and agencies in investigating and enforcing of provincial laws, including the penalties and sentences for employers who do not comply with applicable legislation. These departments and agencies, including the ministries of labour, finance and environment, as well as the Pay Equity Commission and WSIB, share information and, where necessary, take a coordinated approach against employers to ensure compliance.
Several events can prompt an occupational health and safety inspection of a facility, site or workplace. They include:
- An employee complaint – This type of complaint will usually bring an MOL Occupational Health and Safety Inspector to the door. The Occupational Health and Safety Division receives complaints confidentially, and will not disclose the identity of a complainant in most circumstances. It is a violation of law for an employer to retaliate against an employee who files a complaint, even a frivolous one.
- Safe at Work Ontario inspections – An inspection can also be triggered by sector-specific hazards and characteristics stemming from the Safe at Work Ontario enforcement strategy. The Ministry of Labour announces through a press release that an inspection and enforcement “blitz” will occur over a specific time period in a specific sector or regarding a specific hazard.
- Proactive inspection – The ministry can conduct a proactive inspection based on various factors.
Note that serious workplace incidents, fatalities, catastrophes, life-threatening situations or serious injuries that must be reported to the Occupational Health and Safety Division will also trigger inspections, as well as investigations.
In our case, we were flagged for a proactive inspection not because we had any complaints or work-related injuries, but because the WSIB indicated to the MOL that our WSIB rate group had a high injury rate.
In identifying a workplace for a proactive inspection, MOL inspectors will look at the following factors:
- The number and severity of past lost-time and non-lost-time workplace injuries, including the associated costs
- Compliance history
- Hazards inherent to the work
- New businesses
- Size of businesses
- Specific events or incidents (e.g., critical injuries or fatal injuries, or injuries due to violence)
- The presence of young, new or otherwise vulnerable workers
- Companies with high rates of lost-time and non-lost-time injuries and injuries with high costs will be identified through WSIB injury data
- Companies that have a history of non-compliance or workplaces with inherent hazards will be identified by means of ministry experience or enforcement data
Injury rates and associated costs are determined through WSIB data. The ministry analyzes the data each year. The analysis identifies companies or rate groups with the highest injury rates and injury costs relative to other companies within their WSIB rate group.
So we were randomly put on the list with other organizations in our rate group and slated for four OHS inspections.
The inspector talked to three employees in our organization, including me as the health and safety representative. They wanted to know:
- If we had our health and safety statement and policies in place and how often they were reviewed
- If we had posted the Occupational Health and Safety Act in a conspicuous place in the workplace
- If we conducted monthly workplace inspections
- If we had a first aid kit and trained first aid attendant
- Whether all this information had been clearly communicated to employees, and whether they understood it
Once the examination is completed, the inspector prepares a report, and, if applicable, makes recommendations for improved health and safety practices. The aim is to educate and allow you time to comply. Where there are contraventions of the Act or the Regulations, the inspector will issue written orders to the employer to comply with the law within a certain time period or, if the hazard is imminent, to comply immediately and stop work. An inspector’s order can require the employer to submit a plan to the ministry, specifying when and how it will comply with the order.
In our case, I just needed to move our health and safety statements, policies and a copy of the Act into a place where workers would be more likely to see them, and increase my workplace inspections to a monthly basis instead of every two months.
The message learned here:
Surviving an inspection by a Ministry of Labour Occupational Health and Safety Inspector is a matter of knowing your operation from top to bottom and being prepared for a visit at all times.
To guard against the government’s expanded investigatory powers, employers should review relevant legislation and regulations, including workplace policies and programs, to ensure they comply with the law and acceptable industry standards. Effective preparation is an ongoing process that requires knowledge of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Regulations and vigilant attention to self-inspection and record-keeping. Self-inspection should be conducted periodically.
An MOL occupational health and safety inspection may be neither welcome nor enjoyable. However, armed with an understanding of the process and the potential issues involved, coupled with advance planning and judicious use of legal counsel, a company can survive any inspection.
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor