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The History of the Occupational Health and Safety Act

Work in a Safer Generation: Birth of the Occupational Health & Safety Act & Regulations

Ontario Occupational Health & Safety Act (OH&S Act) was originally modeled after the British Factory Act from the 17th century. Ontario introduced the Factory Act of 1884 which was the first OH&S Act. This Act was important in that it suggested prohibitions on the work activities of children and women and suggested work hour restrictions for all employees. However, it was extremely vague in definition and totally unenforceable. It was a beginning, but in reality, the Factory Act of 1884 did little to protect the worker. Employers favoured the Act as it did not clearly intend to limit production, yet made production safer or so it seemed. Eighty long years passed by with this little safe guard in place.

In 1960, a disastrous accident that caused the deaths of five workers changed the face of safety regulations forever. A new definition - SAFETY was introduced to the Factory Act of 1884 and the name changed to the Industrial Safety Act of 1964.

Freedom from injury to the body or freedom from damage
to health Industrial Safety Act of 1964

This new definition was a major step forward and changed the thinking and the protection of workers.

In the late sixties, workers began to openly criticize the lack of safety regulations and revolutionary movements in the workplace began to occur, forcing the Government of Ontario to update the province's health and safety laws. A turning point came in 1974. Uranium miners in Elliot Lake became alarmed about the high incidence of lung cancer and silicosis, and they went on strike over health and safety conditions. The government appointed a Royal Commission to investigate health and safety in mines. Chaired by Dr. James Ham, it became known as the Ham Commission.

The Ham Commission Report included more than 100 recommendations concerning mine health and safety. Ham also introduced the idea of an internal responsibility system, which would require government, employers and workers to work together to improve health and safety. To implement this system, he advocated for the creation of joint labour-management health and safety committees. This was the starting point for Joint Health & Safety Committees (JHSC) and a turning point for workers as they would now have the right to participate in health and safety recommendations.

Evolution of the Internal Responsibility System
1975 - The Ham Commission Report recommends joint committees.
1976 - Bill 139 establishes the Employee?s Health and Safety Act. The Minister can order joint committees.
1978 - Bill 70 establishes the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Mandatory joint committees in many workplaces.
1987 - Bill 79 adds Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
1990 - Bill 208 amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act, broadening the requirement for joint committees. Establishes certified members and the right to stop work.

As well, separate laws covering different industrial sectors were replaced with a comprehensive law covering almost all Ontario workplaces. This law, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OH&S Act), was passed in 1978.

Rights and Responsibilities of Workers
The Occupational Health & Safety Act includes three fundamental rights of workers:
The right to know about workplace health and safety hazards
The right to participate in health and safety recommendations, through their representation on the joint health and safety committee
The right to refuse work if it endangers health or safety

The Right to Know
The Act places a duty on employers to provide a wide range of information about hazards in the workplace to workers and to joint health and safety committees. Joint committees have a duty to communicate with workers. The right to know was first included in the 1978 Act and further expanded by subsequent amendments.

The Right to Participate
The right to participate is given force by a duty on employers. They must consult with joint committees about testing methods and strategies and about health and safety training programs. Designated worker members of joint committees have the right to be present at the beginning of testing, to participate in Ministry inspections and investigations, and to investigate serious accidents. Certified worker members have the right to investigate complaints dealing with dangerous circumstances. Joint committees have the right to make recommendations to employers about health and safety improvements, and the Act requires employers to reply in writing. The right to participate was established by the 1978 Act.

The Right to Refuse
Bill 139 proposed that workers be given a limited right to refuse work on the grounds that it endangers the health or safety of themselves or another worker. The 1978 OH&S Act expanded on this right by setting out specific work refusal procedures. The Act contains a two-stage refusal process. The work may be initially refused on the basis of a worker?s subjective belief that it is dangerous. Once a supervisor has investigated, the worker must have reasonable grounds for believing that the work is still dangerous in order to continue refusing. Bill 208 extended the right to refuse to workers who were formerly excluded altogether. For example, police officers, firefighters and correctional workers can now refuse dangerous work if the refusal does not endanger others and is not a normal or inherent part of their work.

The Occupational Health & Safety Act sets minimum standards for safe practices and was designed to protect workers and to recognize their rights. The Act is the Law!

For more information regarding the Occupational Health & Safety Act, Regulations or any other workplace health and safety issue, please contact the Windsor Occupational Health Information Service (WOHIS).

You have the Right to a safe and healthy workplace!

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