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When is a Release effective to bar a safety-related complaint? Appeal court weighs in

A release, signed by a terminated employee, barred her complaint against her employer under occupational health and safety legislation, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal has decided.

The employee was a nurse at a long-term care home.  The employer dismissed her during the probationary period on the basis that she was “not suitable”.  After getting legal advice, she signed a release in exchange for one month’s termination pay.

Less than a month after signing the release, she filed a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety division of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Labour, alleging that prior to her termination, she had raised safety issues with management regarding bullying and unsafe staffing levels.

The court stated that OHS legislation is for the general benefit of employees, and that benefit should not be bargained away by a release or other agreement.  However, once a “triggering events” occurs which provides a worker with the right to make a complaint under OHS legislation, that right becomes “personal” to the worker.  Where a worker has given a release in respect of a personal right, the validity of the release must be reviewed.  Also, for the release to be effective to bar the personal OHS complaint, the timing of signing of the release (before or after the personal OHS issue arose) must be examined.

In this case, the release was valid, and the personal OHS issue occurred before the release was signed.  Therefore the employee was barred from advancing the OHS complaint.  Her OHS complaint was dismissed.

Wieler v Saskatoon Convalescent Home, 2017 SKCA 90 (CanLII)

 

When is a Release effective to bar a safety-related complaint? Appeal court weighs in

Other amendments to Ontario OHSA coming: accident reporting, unsafe buildings and written directives to MOL inspectors

Last week I wrote about the Ontario government’s plan to amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act to increase the maximum fine against corporations to $1.5 million per charge and against individuals – such as workers, supervisors and corporate directors –  to $100,000 per charge.

Schedule 30 to Bill 177 would also amend the OHSA to impose a requirement on employers who do not own the workplace (such as employers who rent or lease all or part of the building or facility in which the employees work), to notify the Ministry of Labour if the joint health and safety committee or a health and  safety representative has “identified potential structural inadequacies of a building, structure, or any part thereof, or any other part of a workplace, whether temporary or permanent, as a source of danger or hazard to workers”.   This provision appears to be in response to the tragic mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ontario in 2012.

The Bill would also allow the government to make a regulation requiring employers other than constructors or mining companies to notify the MOL if certain events, described in the applicable regulations, take place.  In addition, the Bill would allow the government to make regulations that impose expanded accident reporting obligations on all employers under sections 51, 52 and 53 of the OHSA.

Lastly, the Bill gives the Deputy Minister of Labour authority to “establish written directives for use by inspectors respecting the interpretation, administration and enforcement of this Act and the regulations” which must be “consistent” with the OHSA and regulations and which MOL inspectors are required to follow.  Interestingly, the Bill would not require employers to comply with those written directives, which would seem to permit employers to legally challenge the correctness of any interpretation set out in a written directive.  We will have to wait to see what these written directives will look like.

Other amendments to Ontario OHSA coming: accident reporting, unsafe buildings and written directives to MOL inspectors

Ontario proposing to triple maximum OHSA fine to $1.5 million, change limitation period for laying charges

The Ontario government has introduced legislation to triple the maximum fine under the Occupational Health and Safety Act against corporations to $1.5 million per charge, and quadruple the maximum fine against individual persons – such as workers, supervisors or directors – to $100,000 per charge.

The proposed amendments are, one might say, buried in Schedule 30 to Bill 177 that would implement certain “budget measures”.  Perhaps for that reason, they have received very little attention.  The Bill is called, “Stronger, Fairer Ontario Act (Budget Measures), 2017”.

The Bill received second reading on November 30th and has now been referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs.

The Bill would also change the limitation period for laying charges under the OHSA, which is currently one year. The new limitation period would be the later of one year or “the day upon which an inspector becomes aware of the alleged offence”. That seems to mean that for accidents that employers are not required to report to the Ministry of Labour, the limitation period would continue running until the MOL finds out about the accident – which could be years later when an inspector drops in for an inspection of the workplace.

There are other proposed amendments to the OHSA,  which we will write about next week.  Stay tuned.

Ontario proposing to triple maximum OHSA fine to $1.5 million, change limitation period for laying charges

The introduction of Bill 30 brings the potential for significant changes to Alberta’s workplace laws

On November 27, 2017, the Government of Alberta introduced numerous proposed changes to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act and Workers’ Compensation Act. The proposed changes are contained in Bill 30: An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans.

A review of the key proposed changes in Bill 30 is found here. 

 

The introduction of Bill 30 brings the potential for significant changes to Alberta’s workplace laws

Court should be careful not to measure the practices of “smaller concerns” against those of large companies with far more resources, Justice of the Peace says in dismissing OHSA charge given due diligence

An Ontario Justice of the Peace has dismissed an Occupational Health and Safety Act charge in a fatality case, finding that the employer had established due diligence.

In a July blog post, we reported on an earlier decision in this case.  The OHSA charge against the company resulted from a fatality at a construction site after a “curb machine” overturned while being off-loaded from a “float” trailer, crushing a worker who later died. There were no witnesses to the accident.  The charge against the company alleged that the curb machine was moved in a manner that endangered a worker.

The Court decided that the worker deviated from the standard practice that he and other workers had followed on previous occasions.  There were no training courses available for the task in question, but the worker had in the past demonstrated his experience and ability to do that task. The employer was entitled to rely on the experience of a worker.

The court stated:

“(260)  Despite the fact that [a company witness] could have presented better while on the witness stand, and could have established a more formalized training protocol within his company, his approach is one that is shared by many small to medium sized companies.  These smaller concerns, in general typically have less resources to devote to formalized training (if any existed) but that does not necessarily mean that he was exposing his workers to foreseeable risks and dangers.  In fact the court must be careful not to measure the practices of smaller concerns against those of larger companies with far more resources as it might lead to potential prejudice and be antithetical to the very noble purposes that the court (and the MOL) would wish to uphold.”

In summary, with respect to due diligence: the company had held regular safety meetings; there were no formal education courses that one could take on the loading / unloading task; the worker knew or should have known that what he was doing was unsafe; the company encouraged workers to discuss any safety concerns and provided a forum for those discussions at regularly scheduled meetings; the worker had successfully moved the curb machine 27 times; and there was no evidence that this was an industry wide safety issue.

The employer had therefore established due diligence.  In the result, the charge was dismissed.

Ontario (Ministry of Labour) v. Cobra Float Service Inc., 2017 ONCJ 763 (CanLII)

Court should be careful not to measure the practices of “smaller concerns” against those of large companies with far more resources, Justice of the Peace says in dismissing OHSA charge given due diligence

Adjudicator refuses to anonymize employee’s name in medical accommodation case

Increasingly, in this “Internet age”, employees are asking employment tribunals to anonymize their names, given that almost all decisions are now posted on the Internet.

In a recent case, an adjudicator refused to anonymize a civil servant’s name in her medical-accommodation grievance against her employer.

The employee is a case officer with an Ontario government ministry.  Several years ago she injured her back, wrist and arm at work.  The employer accommodated.

A few years later she moved into a different role.  She complained that the employer did not accommodate her request to fix certain ergonomic issues at her workstation.  She also claimed to have a learning disability and to need a quieter work environment.  She said management was uncooperative.  She filed a grievance, and asked to have her name anonymized because the grievance involved presentation of medical information.

An adjudicator with the Grievance Settlement Board (GSB) refused the anonymization request.  She decided that the “open court principle” applied to the GSB.  Claimants should not be permitted to make serious accusations “from behind a veil of anonymity, assured that they will not be identified if they are found not to be credible, their allegations are rejected”.  Although in some cases that involve particularly sensitive medical information – such as certain information about a person’s mental health – anonymization might be warranted, medical information about the employee’s back, wrist and arm injury were not so sensitive.  As such, the presumption of an “open court” was not displaced and her name would not be anonymized.

Ontario Public Service Employees Union (Cull) v Ontario (Health and Long-Term Care), 2017 CanLII 71798 (ON GSB)

Adjudicator refuses to anonymize employee’s name in medical accommodation case

MOL inspectors have the power to Order employers to produce documents, even if no contravention of OHSA has been found, OLRB decides

The Ontario Labour Relations Board has stated that Ministry of Labour inspectors have the power to require employers to provide documents to the MOL, even where the inspector has not found any contraventions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  

In the case in issue, the OLRB decided that a municipal fire service must give the MOL certain documents that an MOL inspector Ordered the fire service to provide.

The MOL received an anonymous complaint naming the fire service and raising concerns about training programs available to firefighters.  An MOL inspector visited the fire service and issued a “requirement” Order to provide certain documents including training records for the last two years for firefighters; standard operating guidelines and procedures; a training program flow chart; the professional development program; a report showing what training firefighters get before and after they are hired; and the post-incident analysis and review for all incidents in the past six months.

The fire service provided the training records and standard operating guidelines and procedures but did not provide the other  documents.  It appealed the MOL inspector’s Order to the OLRB and asked the OLRB to suspend the Order pending the result of the appeal.  It made a number of arguments including that the documents already provided to the MOL contained sufficient information for the inspector to assess the training complaint, and that some of the documents related to labour relations and not safety.

The OLRB refused to suspend the inspector’s Order to produce the documents, stating that section  54(1)(c) of the OHSA provides inspectors with broad rights to require the production of any number of documents, even without the inspector having found that the employer contravened the OHSA or regulations.  Also, the OLRB could not at this point determine whether suspending the Order would put any workers at risk.  As such, the inspector’s Order was not suspended and remained in effect.

The Corporation of the Municipality of Chatham-Kent v A Director under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 2017 CanLII 74130 (ON LRB)

 

MOL inspectors have the power to Order employers to produce documents, even if no contravention of OHSA has been found, OLRB decides

Lack of remorse results in 4 month jail sentence for supervisor in fatal trench incident

An Alberta judge cited a lack of remorse as a factor warranting a 4 month jail term for a supervisor of a work site. The supervisor, as well as his employer, had been charged with a variety of offences stemming from an incident that occurred in April 2015 where a trench at an infill housing construction site collapsed, fatally injuring a worker. The worker was a casual day labourer who had been working in the trench to install new water and sewer lines. The trench was not braced in any way, contrary to the legislation, and a wall collapsed, trapping the worker inside the trench where he died. The employer pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of a worker and the supervisor pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to take reasonable care to protect the health and safety of another worker.

While a guilty plea will often be considered a mitigating factor, it did not have that effect in this case. The judge found that the employer and the supervisor had exploited a vulnerable worker for profit and put their own interests ahead of safety and the requirements in the regulations. Therefore, the judge found that jail time was appropriate as the supervisor’s culpability was very high.

The employer was sentenced to a fine of $425,000 plus the victim fine surcharge of $63,750. However, the judge noted that the employer was a company without assets and she acknowledged that it was unlikely to pay the fine. Nevertheless, the judge considered it appropriate to issue a large fine in order to have an impact on other corporations who may be motivated to conduct business in a similar manner.

The developer of the worksite had previously pleaded guilty as the prime contractor to the charge of failing to ensure the legislation was complied with on a work site. The developer had agreed to a fine of $111,250 and a $50,000 contribution in the worker’s name to an organization where he had previously accessed services to assist in providing safety training and equipment to day labourers.

This case is a clear example of an increasing trend across Canada where courts are willing to sentence supervisors to jail time for occupational health and safety offences. Jail time sentences are likely to continue to be imposed and, as this case demonstrates, the sentences are likely to become longer.

See here for a list of charges (charged is: Haya Homes Ltd., Sahib Contracting Inc., Sukhwinder Nagra).

Lack of remorse results in 4 month jail sentence for supervisor in fatal trench incident

City inspector who engaged in two separate physical attacks at work was fired for cause: “that risk must be removed from the workplace”

A labour arbitrator has upheld the dismissal of a city inspector after he physically attacked two people – a coworker and a contractor to the city – in two separate incidents at work.

The employee was an inspector with the Municipal Construction unit at the city’s Water Division.

The arbitrator found that in one incident, the employee engaged in a physical altercation in which he intentionally struck a coworker, causing him injury (a 1-2 cm cut under his left eyebrow). The incident arose from a dispute about the use of city laundry facilities used to wash employees’ work clothes.  The arbitrator also found that the employee was dishonest in his characterization of what occurred, and did not accept responsibility.

In the other incident, the employee engaged in a verbal altercation with a city contractor (a backhoe operator) while inspecting a new residential service connection at a private property.  Instead of walking away, the employee escalated the dispute into a physical altercation, following the contractor and striking him twice in the back of the head.  The dispute was over whether the backhoe operator was using the appropriate material for backfill.

The arbitrator stated:

“There is simply no basis on which to relieve against the grievor’s termination.  His inability to control his anger has resulted in conduct which is completely unacceptable.   Even prior to Bill 168, an employee who, on two separate occasions physically attacked persons in the workplace, particularly when at least one of those attacks resulted in an injury, could expect to have their employment terminated, and that termination upheld.” 

Here, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, the employee attempted to blame the victims. He had failed to take an anger management course when requested, and also had received a Letter of Direction, directing him not to engage in workplace violence.

The arbitrator concluded:

“Accordingly, I accept the City’s assessment that the grievor has anger management issues, is likely to reoffend by engaging in violence, and that that risk must be removed from the workplace.”

There were no mitigating factors in the case. The employee’s dismissal was upheld.

Canadian Union Of Public Employees, Local 79 v Toronto (City), 2017 CanLII 53965 (ON LA)

City inspector who engaged in two separate physical attacks at work was fired for cause: “that risk must be removed from the workplace”

A Truly Poisoned Work Environment – Arbitrator Upholds Discharge of Employee Who Spiked Office Water Cooler with Bleach

In what can only be described as a victory for common sense, an arbitrator recently upheld the discharge of a 27 year employee who was found responsible for spiking the office water cooler with chlorine bleach.

On September 12, 2011, an employee reported to his supervisor that the water from the office water cooler had a “strong chlorine smell” and a “very hard taste”. In reviewing the surveillance video on the day in question, the Grievor is seen exiting his office with an empty water cooler jug, entering the chemical storage room and then leaving the chemical storage room and walking back to his office with a chlorine bleach jug in his hand. As he re-enters his office, the Grievor is seen placing his hand on the cap of the chlorine bleach jug. The Grievor later exits his office with the chlorine bleach jug in his hand. He ultimately returns to his office with a full jug of water for the cooler.

When initially confronted about the situation, the Grievor denied that he had caused the contamination of the water cooler but volunteered no information about why he had obtained the bleach from the chemical storage room. However, in his subsequent meetings with investigators and through his testimony at the hearing, the Grievor’s story evolved to the point where he alleged that he had poured the bleach into two cups – one to be used later in the day to clean some shelves in his office and the other to pour into a dumpster located outside his office in order to kill its odour.

At the hearing, the Grievor’s supervisor rejected the Grievor’s explanation noting that it made no sense for the Grievor to clean the shelves since they were not dirty and they were being dismantled to be taken out of the building. He further testified that he never saw the Grievor use a cup to pour chlorine breach into the dumpster.

In his decision, the Arbitrator found that the Grievor’s testimony lacked credibility. In the Arbitrator’s view, “the Grievor’s many actions, as witnessed on the video and as described in his testimony, when taken together simply defy logic and do not make sense”. As a result, the Arbitrator ruled that it was more likely than not that he was the cause of the chlorine bleach contamination of the office drinking water cooler. With respect to penalty, the Arbitrator held that “…the level of mistruths and evasiveness displayed by the employee, as well as his failure to take responsibility for his actions, irreparably harmed the employee-employer relationship.” There was therefore no basis for the Arbitrator to interfere with the Employer’s decision to dismiss the Grievor for cause.

This case is a good reminder of the importance that credibility will play when an adjudicator is asked to determine which version of events is more likely to have occurred. In conducting investigations, employers should ensure that they take detailed statements from those involved so as to “nail down” the alleged offender’s story. Should the alleged offender later change his or her story, the employer will be in a good position to impeach the employee’s credibility.

Knox v. Treasury Board (Canadian Food Inspection Agency), 2017 PSLREB 40.

 

 

A Truly Poisoned Work Environment – Arbitrator Upholds Discharge of Employee Who Spiked Office Water Cooler with Bleach

Well-trained worker’s negligence, which was unforeseeable, caused his death: company not guilty of OHSA charge

An Ontario judge has decided that a worker’s negligence – not the company’s – caused the worker’s death, overturning a conviction and fine in a Ministry of Labour prosecution against the company under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The worker died when he cut a band holding steel coils together, without ensuring that the coils were stabilized.  The coils fell on him. There were no eyewitnesses to the incident.

The company was found guilty at trial on one OHSA charge of failing to provide suitable “information, instruction and supervision” to the worker. The company appealed.

The worker had worked for the company for 18 years. He had received 80 hours of hands-on training from a fellow employee and had received other extensive safety training from the company.  The company had safe operating procedures, some of which were not in writing, but that was not required by law.

The judge decided that the court may consider a worker’s negligence in determining whether the employer was guilty of failing to provide the worker with suitable “information, instruction and supervision”. Also, the trial Justice of the Peace erred when she failed to consider the defence expert’s evidence that the design and layout of the work area were appropriate as were the established work procedures.

The court concluded:

“There was ample evidence of thorough and extensive employee safety training, and the accident was not due to a lack of it.  It was the negligence of [the deceased worker] which caused it, something the company could not have foreseen.  It is a tragedy because [the deceased worker] was a husband and father and a long time, valued employee.”

In the result, the judge allowed the appeal, overturned the finding of guilt on the training charge, and therefore set aside the fine.

Ontario (Ministry of Labour) v. Samuel, Son & Co. Limited, 2017 ONCJ 611 (CanLII)

Well-trained worker’s negligence, which was unforeseeable, caused his death: company not guilty of OHSA charge

Appeal judge reduces $250,000 fine to $80,000, and sets aside jail terms against company directors in workplace fatality

An Ontario judge has decided that a $250,000 fine against a small company, and 25-day jail terms for two company directors, were too severe.

The defendant employer was a small business with a few employees at the time of the accident.  An employee died after he fell 12 feet while attempting to retrieve merchandise in the warehouse.   The employee had not received safety training and was not wearing any safety equipment.

The employer and its two directors were charged with offences under the Occupational Health and Safety Act relating to training and fall protection.  Each of them pleaded guilty to two charges.  The court imposed a total fine of $250,000 on the company and 25-day jail terms for the directors, reasoning that a fine against the directors personally “would only cause more financial hardship”.

The appeal judge decided that the $250,000 fine against the company, and the jail terms, were “significantly out of the range of sentences regularly imposed by the courts for these types of offences and for these types of offenders”.  The fine was “demonstrably unfit”. Similarly, the trial Justice of the Peace was wrong when she reasoned that jail terms were appropriate for the directors because a fine would cause more financial hardship.  The caselaw showed that jail terms were more appropriate for defendants with prior safety convictions for whom fines had not had a deterrent effect.

The appeal judge therefore imposed a total fine of $50,000 on the company and $15,000 on each of the two directors, for a total of $80,000.  The jail terms were set aside.

Ontario (Ministry of Labour) v. New Mex Canada Inc., 2017 ONCJ 626 (CanLII)

Appeal judge reduces $250,000 fine to $80,000, and sets aside jail terms against company directors in workplace fatality

Employer did not terminate worker’s employment because he had raised safety concerns

After only two months on the job, an equipment operator/driver was terminated by his employer. He believed he had been terminated because he had recently raised several health and safety concerns about a job site. He had been concerned that a waste disposal bin he was required to service was in close proximity to overhead power lines. He alleged that upon telling his employer about his concerns, his employer terminated his employment.

The worker made a complaint to the Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) Division, claiming that the employer’s conduct constituted discriminatory action against him contrary to the occupational health and safety provisions of the Saskatchewan Employment Act (SEA). OH&S officials investigated the matter and determined that the worker’s complaint of discriminatory action was well-founded. The employer was directed to reinstate the worker and make him whole with respect to lost wages and benefits. The employer appealed. The OH&S Adjudicator allowed the appeal. The worker then appealed that decision to the Labour Relations Board. The Board dismissed the appeal, finding that the Adjudicator’s decision was reasonable.

The Board acknowledged that the worker was entitled to the protections in the SEA notwithstanding that he was still within his probationary period. The key issue before the Board was whether the worker’s termination constituted discriminatory action; in other words, whether or not there was a causal connection between the worker voicing concerns about workplace safety and his termination shortly thereafter. This issue depended on whether or not the worker had advised the employer of his workplace safety concerns prior to the termination meeting. The Adjudicator had considered the evidence and determined that he had not. While he had mentioned it to his route coordinator, she did not have a management role and she had made it clear to the worker that he needed to bring his concerns to the attention of the general manager. Despite numerous opportunities, the worker did not discuss his concerns with his general manager until he was informed that he was being terminated. While the section of the SEA did not explicitly require a worker to advise the employer of safety concerns, the only reasonable interpretation was that a worker did have to notify the employer before being able to lawfully refuse work. The Board determined that the Adjudicator’s conclusion that the worker had failed to notify the employer was reasonable and thus the Adjudicator’s decision that the employer had not violated the SEA was also reasonable.

The Board also found that the Adjudicator’s decision that the employer had good and sufficient other reason to terminate the worker’s employment was reasonable. This related to the Adjudicator’s determination that the employer had established that the worker had been insolent to the general manager, had made inappropriate statements to some of the employer’s customer’s employees, and had been the subject of a customer complaint. The Adjudicator had decided that the employer’s determination, based on these incidents, that the worker was not a fit for the organization was the reason for the termination, not the fact that he had raised safety concerns. The Board found this decision was reasonable. The Board rejected the employer’s request for costs.

Lund v. West Yellowhead Waste Resource Authority Inc. et al., 2017 CanLII 30151 (SK LRB)

Employer did not terminate worker’s employment because he had raised safety concerns

Second OHSA conviction gets construction employer jailed for 30 days

Another Ontario employer has been jailed for violating the Occupational Health and Safety Act. As in some previous OHSA jail-time cases, this one involved a worker falling off a roof.

For our blog posts on some previous OHSA jail-time cases, click here.

The worker was working on the roof of a construction project. He was wearing a fall-arrest harness that was attached to a lanyard, which was connected to a lifeline. The worker detached the lanyard from the lifeline and moved toward a different lifeline at the peak of the roof. He slipped and fell almost 30 feet to the ground and was seriously injured.

The employer, an individual, pleaded guilty to failing to ensure that the worker was attached to a travel restraint system at all times.  The court sentenced the employer to 30 days in jail.

Importantly, this was the employer’s second conviction under the OHSA.  In 2013, another worker employed by the employer died after he fell 26 feet to the ground. The employer was fined $15,000 in that case.

For years, jail terms were very rare in OHSA matters.  The courts appear to be getting more comfortable with imposing jail time for serious OHSA violations by repeat offenders.

The MOL press release for this case can be found here.

Second OHSA conviction gets construction employer jailed for 30 days

Changes on the horizon for Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation system?

In March 2016, the Government of Alberta launched a formal review of the workers’ compensation system and established an independent panel to examine the system and make recommendations. The panel received feedback from the public and held various consultation sessions with injured workers, safety associations and several other interested parties. The panel completed its review earlier this year and submitted its final report to the Ministry of Labour. That report was recently released and can be accessed on the Government of Alberta’s website here.

The panel’s report noted that while there are clearly many issues with the workers’ compensation system, overall, it continues to be valued by both workers and employers. Both sides generally continue to see it as a preferable alternative to litigation. However, the report pointed out that while most claims are dealt with relatively well, more complex claims often give rise to considerable issues, causing frustration to all parties. The most significant issue with the system is not the level of benefits, but rather, the overall decision making process which is often viewed as preferring the efficient management of claims at the expense of assisting injured workers.

Interestingly, the panel found that both employers and workers seem generally unhappy with the system – workers feel that the system is in the employer’s “pocket”, while employers feel that the system favours workers. Reestablishing trust in the system is seen as a key goal.

The panel’s report includes 60 different recommendations, some to the legislation, others to policy or operations. The focus of the changes is towards a “worker-centered” system. Some of the key proposed changes highlighted in the report are:

  • The establishment of a new Fair Practices Office, independent of the WCB, similar to an ombudsman;
  • Increased assistance for workers and employers with reviews and appeals through an Office of the Appeals Advisor that is relocated from the WCB to the Fair Practices Office;
  • The use of a new roster system for independent medical examinations (IMEs), with responsibility for the roster residing with the Medical Panel Office, which is independent from the WCB;
  • Greater choice for injured workers in selecting health professionals, in addition to the choice they already have in selecting their treating physicians;
  • The establishment of an obligation to return workers to work, and a corollary obligation to cooperate on the part of workers;
  • The use of case conference models throughout the system, along with a system-wide commitment to seek early and collaborative resolution of any disputes that arise;
  • The adjustments of certain benefits provided by the system, with the specific aim of addressing areas where there is hardship, fatalities, permanent injuries of young workers, retirement benefits or people who are affected in dramatic ways by the current application of WCB policies; and
  • Further study or review of particularly complex aspects of the system.

Some of these recommendations, such as establishing an obligation to return injured workers to work, are controversial and it will be interesting to see which of these recommendations will ultimately be implemented.

Changes on the horizon for Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation system?

Town employees did not have a reasonable basis to fear violence from protester: “violence is not the mere absence of civility”, appeal court states

“The Town employees, both junior and senior, were alarmed, but they were alarmed too easily”, the Ontario Court of Appeal has stated, in deciding that a protester outside of a town council meeting did not engage in “violence”.  The decision shows that employees’ subjective fear of bullying or violence are not always legally justified.

The man was protesting the town council’s intention to permit a medical marijuana facility to be built across the street from his home. Several town staff members “expressed fear for their safety”. The town’s interim Chief Administrative Officer, whose duties included the obligation under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act to maintain a workplace free from harassment or violence, issued a trespass notice and the police arrested the protester and placed him in handcuffs when he refused to leave.  The trespass notice stated that the protester was not to enter three town properties for a year.  The protester brought a court application challenging the validity of the trespass notice.  He lost at the lower court, but won at the Court of Appeal.

The appeal court decided that the protester had not engaged in violence.  Although town employees were frightened and felt that the protester was “bullying them”, the evidence did not disclose any reasonable basis for their fear.  The court stated, “A protest does not cease to be peaceful simply because protesters are loud and angry”.  Here, there was no evidence that the protester physically obstructed anyone, or otherwise impaired anyone’s ability to use public space.  He paced back and forth with a megaphone.  Those were not “erratic” actions. The court stated, “Violence is not the mere absence of civility.”

The court noted the insufficient basis for the town employees’ fear of violence:

“The basis for [the town employees’] fear appears to be (1) one prior interaction in which Mr. Bracken was loud and “intimidating”, but in which he was never violent or threatening; (2) Mr. Bracken’s videotaping of a Council meeting; (3) Mr. Bracken’s videos posted to Youtube, in which he is said to chase people down and question them; (4) his actions on the day of his protest. If anyone felt intimidated by him, other than Town employees who had never before witnessed a protest and doubted that protests in front of Town Hall were lawful, it was not because he was threatening anyone.”

The court held that the town’s Workplace Violence Prevention Policy did not give the town authority to issue the trespass notice to the protester.  The court stated, “Although the OHSA imposes a duty on the Town to take reasonable precautions to protect workers, it does not confer any powers on the Town regarding the activities of someone who is not a co-worker . . .”  Further, the town staff could have talked to the protester and cautioned him about his activities, but they did not do so.  The trespass notice violated the protester’s right, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to freedom of expression.

According to the appeal court, “The statutory obligation to promote workplace safety, and the ‘safe space’ policies enacted pursuant to them, cannot be used to swallow whole Charter rights.”

In the end, the appeal court set aside the trespass notice and awarded the protester $4,000.00 for his costs of the appeal, and additional costs for the lower court proceeding.

Bracken v. Fort Erie (Town), 2017 ONCA 668 (CanLII)

Town employees did not have a reasonable basis to fear violence from protester: “violence is not the mere absence of civility”, appeal court states

Attendance management program was not discriminatory, appeal court decides

A National Attendance Management Policy implemented by Correctional Services Canada was not discriminatory, even though it “counted” absences due to illness, a federal appeals court has decided. The decision is a welcome reminder that attendance management programs, if properly drafted, can be legal and permissible.

Correctional Services Canada implemented the attendance management policy in response to concerns about its employees’ use of sick time.  The policy was intended to be non-disciplinary, and to be used as a tool to assist employees in maintaining attendance and to help identify employees who might require accommodation from the employer.

Supervisors were required to flag situations in which employees’ absenteeism exceeded the 12-month rolling average for their peer group.  If absences were caused by situations requiring accommodation, no further action under the program was needed.

The employees’ union challenged the policy at arbitration, claiming that it discriminated against employees because of disability and family status by counting, in the number of days of absence, absences due to disability or for family-related leave.

The arbitration board agreed with the union, but the Federal Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that employees did not experience any “adverse treatment” as a result of those absences being included in the group average or the individual employee’s count. Therefore, the court concluded, the policy was not discriminatory because of disability or family status.

The appeal court stated:

“Likewise, nothing adverse flowed under the NAMP from including absences due to disability or for family-related leave in the total number of days an employee was absent for purposes of simply determining if the employee exceeded the relevant peer group threshold. Under the NAMP (at least as it was written), all that was to transpire, once the threshold was exceeded, was that the supervisor was required to be satisfied as to the legitimacy of the absences and to identify, where possible, situations where an accommodation was required, as would be the case if the absences were occasioned by a disability or if the employee were entitled to leave to address family-related responsibilities accorded protection under the CHRA. If accommodations were required, the employee was to be removed from the NAMP. Once again, at least at this initial stage of discussion with the supervisor, nothing adverse occurred. The mere identification of employees who exceed a group average threshold and initial discussions with them have been found to be permissible in other cases . . .”

The appeal court concluded that the attendance management program was not discriminatory.

Canada (Attorney General) v. Bodnar, 2017 FCA 171 (CanLII)

 

 

Attendance management program was not discriminatory, appeal court decides

WSIB violated Human Rights Code in dealings with injured worker who had psychological conditions, human rights tribunal decides

The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board failed to accommodate the needs of an injured worker with psychological conditions, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has decided.  The HRTO found that the WSIB failed to consider the impact of its administrative processes and poor communication of decisions on the worker, in light of his special needs due to his psychological condition.

The worker was injured at work in 2002.  He was receiving full “Loss of Earnings” benefits from the WSIB.   He had a number of psychological conditions including anxiety, depression marked by suicidal ideation, a pain disorder with psychiatric features, personality disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder.

The HRTO, in its decision, noted that the worker had a “bitter and tumultuous” relationship with a WSIB adjudicator.  At one point, the worker asked for accommodation, claiming that his “psychological disability . . . is exacerbated to dangerous and harmful levels by dealing with the WSIB . . .”

The HRTO held that the WSIB provides a “service” and that, therefore, the Human Rights Code requires it to do so in a non-discriminatory manner.

The HRTO found that the worker’s experience dealing with the WSIB would have been frustrating for most people. His experience “included contradictory requests for information, contradictory information about what was allowed and what was not, very extensive delays, lack of explanation for various decisions that were made, and seemingly arbitrary and excessive demands for information that was not necessary.”

The HRTO stated:

The processes and systems become discriminatory because of the failure to appreciate their effect on this particular injured worker because of his multiple disabilities and special needs.

“In coming to this conclusion, I am quite aware that the applicant’s sometimes extreme reactions to stress can make it very difficult to deal with him. On the occasions when the applicant was self-represented in this proceeding, it was often very difficult to proceed with the adjudication of the issues.”

In conclusion, the HRTO decided:

“In conclusion, I accept the evidence of the applicant and Dr. Cobrin that the applicant experiences a significantly heightened level of stress and frustration because of his various disabilities. I accept Dr. Cobrin’s evidence that the applicant has a very limited capacity to deal with stress and that his dealings with the WSIB in particular result in acute exacerbation of his disability, including suicidal ideation. I accept that these symptoms eventually caused the applicant to not seek entitlement to health care benefits, including entitlement for treatment for acute psychological crisis.

“I find that the respondent failed to consider the impact of its administrative processes and poor communication of decisions on the applicant in light of the special needs he has as a result of his disabilities.”

“I conclude that these circumstances mean that the respondent infringed the applicant’s rights under the Code.”

The HRTO stated that it would schedule a one-day hearing to hear submissions about possible remedies to which the worker would be entitled under the Human Rights Code, given the WSIB’s violation of the Human Rights Code in its dealings with him.

Lawson v. Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, 2017 HRTO 851 (CanLII)

WSIB violated Human Rights Code in dealings with injured worker who had psychological conditions, human rights tribunal decides

Appeal court upholds $270,000 fine in OHSA matter – when MOL and company agreed on $180,000

A recent Ontario appeal decision is a reminder that courts in Occupational Health and Safety Act prosecutions can award fines higher than even the Ministry of Labour prosecutor requests.

In this unusual case, both a trial Justice of the Peace and appeal judge imposed a fine that was substantially higher than what the MOL prosecutor wanted.

After a six-day trial, the defendant, an auto parts manufacturer, was found guilty on three charges under the OHSA.   The trial Justice of the Peace fined the company a total of $270,000, even though the MOL prosecutor at trial had requested a fine in the range of only $175,000 to $225,000.

The company appealed the amount of the fine, but did not appeal the convictions.  On the appeal, the company argued that the fine was not proportionate, that the trial justice placed undue emphasis on a prior conviction against the company under the OHSA, and that the fine was outside of the acceptable range.  The appeal judge rejected all of those arguments because the employer was a “substantial corporation” (two facilities with a total of 770 people) that was “within a broader group of companies”; the employer had been found guilty on three charges under the OHSA; it was proper to consider the prior conviction (which was in 2004); and the harm to the injured worker was “devastating”: he was rendered a paraplegic when a robot on which he was doing a “quick fix” pressed against him on his back.  The company’s practice was not to lock out / tag out robots when doing a “quick fix”.

Interestingly, on the appeal, the MOL prosecutor and the defence counsel actually agreed that $180,000 would be an appropriate amount for the fine.   The appeal judge effectively rejected that agreement, finding that the $270,000 fine was not “unfit”.

The appeal judge decided that a fine of $270,000 “fell within the appropriate range”. The appeal was dismissed.  The case illustrates the point that, particularly in cases of serious injury to a worker that “offends” the court, there is always a risk that the court will impose a fine that is greater than the amount that the MOL prosecutor wanted.

R. v. Matcor Automotive Inc., 2017 ONCJ 560 (CanLII)

Appeal court upholds $270,000 fine in OHSA matter – when MOL and company agreed on $180,000

Experienced tanker truck driver had right to refuse to drive refrigeration truck without additional training, OHS appeals tribunal rules

A trucking company should have offered a tanker truck driver fresh training before asking him to pull a 53′ refrigerated trailer (referred to as a “reefer” load) which was longer and taller, a health and safety appeals tribunal has ruled.

The driver had four years of experience with the employer driving tanker trucks, as well as experience at a prior employer.  He refused to pull the refrigerated trailer when asked, saying he required training as it was a new assignment.  The employer argued that the driver did not need more training, since his overall training and his experience on the tanker truck were sufficient.

The Tribunal held that driving a refrigeration truck would have been a “new task” for the driver.  The Tribunal stated:

“While I may be prepared to accept that the existence and knowledge of an employee’s past experience may alleviate the extent of the education that would be needed to satisfy the employer’s obligation, this does not exempt the employer from the obligation as such and of the obligation to ascertain the extent to which the past experience may affect the coverage of said education. Furthermore, I do not share the opinion expressed by the appellant that, in regards to the said needed education, Mr. Wilkins had been hired primarily to ‘drive’. An undertaking such as the one operated by the appellant is not solely a driving undertaking but rather a transportation, a road transport, undertaking which, in the course of its activities, as demonstrated by the appellant in the course of the hearing, requires its employees, drivers, to drive/pull various loads using a variety of trailers, each presenting their own characteristics. As such, given the history of Mr. Wilkins’ service with the appellant, being asked to drive/pull a reefer constituted a new task or, to use the wording of the Regulations, his being ‘assigned a new activity’.”

The Tribunal concluded that the employer therefore violated the Canada Labour Code when it failed to give the driver the necessary health and safety education shortly before assigning a new activity – driving the  refrigeration truck – to him.

Further, the Tribunal held that driving the refrigeration truck without having received the appropriate training presented inherent risks and was therefore a “hazardous activity” that posed a danger and a serious threat to the driver’s life or health due to the risk of an accident.  Driving / pulling conditions were affected by the size of a trailer, its shape, the load balance and the axle positioning.  The driver was therefore justified in refusing to drive the refrigeration truck without more training.

Keith Hall & Sons Transport Limited v. Robin Wilkins, 2017 OHSTC 1 (CanLII)

Experienced tanker truck driver had right to refuse to drive refrigeration truck without additional training, OHS appeals tribunal rules