Risk
July 11, 2012

For safety’s sake: An Act worth celebrating

On October 1, 1979 the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act came into force. Thirty years later we celebrate what turned out to be a highly successful piece of legislation. Why has it been so successful? Can it be applied more broadly to other public policy issues?

In the mid-70s, the accident rates in the mining industry were higher than any other major industrial sector. While typical for that sector in most countries, the situation in Ontario had become intolerable. In 1976, there were 19 fatalities; 12.5 per 100 workers had lost time injuries. Wildcat strikes by miners in the Elliot Lake area, and considerable political pressure on a minority government, led to the creation of a Royal Commission on health and safety in mines, headed by Dr. James Ham, an engineering professor from the University of Toronto.

A thoughtful report folllowed, setting the foundation for a new Act that, rather than limiting reforms to the mining sector, applied to all workplaces. The right to refuse dangerous work, mandatory joint health and safety committees and a clear description of who was responsible for what were enshrined. Separate industrial regulations applied to the specifics of mining, construction and others.

Internal responsibility system
Coined by Dr. Ham, the phrase internal responsibility system (IRS) describes the foundations of the Act. The term has never been defined in legislation despite many attempts at wordsmithing. In teaching the subject at the Ministry of Labour and at Queen’s University, the following seemed to work best: “The internal responsibility system is a safety management system that outlines clear roles and accountability for workplace parties with direct and contributory responsibility for health and safety.” A simple diagram illustrates this concept (see IRS diagram).

When the schematic was presented to Dr. Ham in 1991, one component stood out. In the original diagram the Ministry of Labour had an a external contributing role. He corrected that notion – government must be seen as a “check on the system,” not part of the IRS. A strong enforcement capacity acts to support the efforts of better companies and helps “bad actors” in providing deterrence and focus to their activities (maximum fines for companies are $500,000 per charge; for individuals $25,000 and one year in prison).

Safety culture
Some sectors have embraced the principles behind the Act while others have struggled. The mining sector, where it all started, saw a decrease in 2008 in lost time injuries per 100 workers from 12.5 to 0.8 and in fatalities from 19 to one; mandatory training for miners and frontline supervisors; new technology; and, above all, a safety culture and a commitment to never return to the conditions prior to the Act.

While the overall provincial injury rate is at a historic low – 1.7 lost-time injuries per 100 workers – some sectors such as health care remain above the provincial average. Justice Archie Campbell suggested, in his report on the SARS Inquiry in December 2006, that hospitals “lack the basic safety culture and workplace safety systems.” Occupational health and safety is not part of the mandatory training doctors and nurses receive at Ontario’s colleges and universities.

Application to other “harms”
In his latest book, The Character of Harms, Dr. Malcolm Sparrow notes the various ways public sector organizations get recognition for their work. By “parsing the risk” and designing “tailor-made interventions,” they achieve results and recognition. I have no argument with that, particularly if there is no sustainable general theory for how to deal with social harms. But once in a while a gem of an idea comes along and sustains itself through various governments and shows its strength by delivering credible results. The Occupational Health and Safety Act is a case in point; the system at its root prevents accidents.

What if the model were applied to other “harms”: environmental issues, crime prevention, First Nations issues, health care costs? What if a consensus were built to create an IRS with clear roles and accountabilities, and monitor results? What if the focus was on harms prevented rather than treatment efficiencies?

In the words of Fredrick Leplay (1806-1882), inspector-general of mines in France: “The most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner.” And so it is for all public policy. The focus of any system must be on the citizen, the customer, the worker. The Occupational Health and Safety Act stands as a testament to good public policy, well crafted, well executed, and it should be well recognized.   

Vic Pakalnis is Kinross Professor in Mining and Sustainability at Queen’s University. Previously, he worked for over 30 years in technical and executive positions at the Ontario Ministry of Labour. 

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