The Alberta Court of Appeal recently provided clarity on what the Crown must prove in a prosecution under the general duty section in the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Alberta) (“OHSA”) of failing to ensure the health and safety of a worker. The general duty section was then section 2(1) of the OHSA, and is now section 3(1)(a).
The employer had been originally found guilty on two charges, including the general duty offence, following a workplace fatality. The employer successfully appealed the convictions and the summary conviction appeal judge ordered a new trial. The Crown was granted leave to appeal the decision, bringing the question before the Alberta Court of Appeal. Please see our previous posts discussing this case for more information on the background and history of the proceedings.
The key question before the Alberta Court of Appeal was whether the expression “as far as is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so” in the general duty section was part of the actus reus; in other words, whether it was part of the physical components of the offence that the Crown had to prove. The majority set out to provide an interpretation of the general duty section that would result in a more comprehensive framework for the actus reus requirement for the general offence provision.
The Crown argued that it could rely on the “accident as prima facie proof of breach” concept when proving the actus reus in order to satisfy its legal burden. In the majority decision, the court disagreed and determined that the expression “as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so” did form one element of the actus reus. Therefore, for an offence under the general duty of the OHSA, the Crown must establish beyond a reasonable doubt the following:
- The worker must have been engaged in the work of the employer;
- The worker’s health or safety must have been threatened or compromised (i.e. an unsafe condition); and
- It was reasonably practicable for the employer to address the unsafe condition through efforts that the employer failed to undertake.
The majority found that these elements were consistent with the language of the OHSA, its purpose and intent, the Supreme Court of Canada’s guidance in Sault Ste. Marie and the interpretation given to similar provisions in other jurisdictions. This did not constitute a codification of the due diligence defence and did not undermine the OHSA’s basic goals. The majority did acknowledge that the employer’s obligation to establish due diligence on the balance of probabilities would overlap with the Crown’s obligation to prove that it was reasonably practicable for the employer to address the unsafe condition. However, those remained distinct inquiries which were subject to different standards of proof. In addition, certain factors such as mistake and employee error could affect the due diligence defence in ways that would not affect the actus reus assessment.
The second ground of appeal was whether the appeal judge erred in law in her interpretation and application of the due diligence defence. The majority reviewed this issue and determined that the Crown had not identified any error in the appeal judge’s review of the application of the due diligence defence and thus this ground of appeal was dismissed.
In the minority decision (concurring in the result), the justice disagreed that the words “as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so” constituted part of the physical components that the Crown must prove. The minority decision stated that imposing that requirement on the Crown would require it to prove standard industry practices, what a reasonable company would have done, or that the measures taken by the employer were insufficient and unreasonable. Thus the Crown would have to prove negligence or negate due diligence. However, it would not always be possible for the Crown to prove exactly how a workplace incident actually occurred, which is why the general duty was set out in the OHSA. Therefore, to establish the physical components for the general duty offence, the minority held that the Crown need only prove beyond a reasonable doubt that something happened within the control of an employer that negatively affected the health or safety of its workers.
The minority agreed in the result that the appeal should be dismissed and the matter sent back for a new trial.
R. v. Precision Diversified Oilfield Services Corp., 2018 ABCA 273 (CanLII)