Arbitration board imposes 24-hour firefighter shift, despite employer’s safety concerns

An interest arbitration board has imposed a 24-hour shift for firefighters employed by the Ontario City of St. Catharines, despite the city’s strenuous objections based largely on safety concerns.

The City and firefighters’ union had resolved all terms of their collective agreement except whether there should be 24-hour shifts and one other issue.  The union wanted the 24-hour shifts and the City wished to maintain its current shift schedule (10 hour day shifts and 14 hour night shifts).

The City called an expert on sleep medicine and disorders.  The expert focused on the dangers of sleep deprivation and fatigue. His opinion was that the current “10/14” shift schedule was substantially safer than a 24-hour schedule.  The evidence, however, was that over 82% of firefighters in Ontario, from “services of all sizes”, have “adopted and/or adapted to the 24-hour shift”, and 70% of firefighters in the United States.  A number of other Ontario cities, including Toronto, used 24-hour shifts which had been “freely bargained”.

The arbitration board noted that the expert’s evidence was largely based on the experience of other professions such as medical interns, who often got very little sleep during their 24-hour shift.  In contrast, firefighters in St. Catharines had gotten uninterrupted sleep during 80% of their night shifts.  Further, the evidence suggested that it would be rare that a firefighter would not get any sleep during a 24-hour shift.  There was also no evidence of any allegations that the 24-hour shift was a cause or contributing factor in any harm occurring, “even in the litigious U.S.A.”   Further, the Ontario Fire Prevention and Protection Act permitted 24-hour shifts, suggesting that the Legislature has accepted that the 24-hour shift did not present undue health and safety risks.

In summary, the evidence did not establish that there was an unacceptable safety risk to anyone that could not be addressed if a 24-hour shift was implemented.  Given the principles of “replication and comparability”, and given the wide use of the 24-hour shift in other cities, the arbitration board ordered the parties to convene a “joint committee” to “determine the best formulation” for the implementation of a 24-hour shift for a two-year trial period.

The Corporation of the City of St. Catharines v. The Catharines Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, 2014 CanLII 93716 (ON LA)

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Adrian Miedema

About Adrian Miedema

Adrian is a partner in the Toronto Employment group of Dentons Canada LLP. He advises and represents public- and private-sector employers in employment, health and safety and human rights matters. He appears before employment tribunals and all levels of the Ontario courts on behalf of employers. He also advises employers on strategic and risk management considerations in employment policy and contracts.

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