Just 1 per cent of workplaces across the province are being proactively inspected to ensure they are safe — and the Ministry of Labour’s enforcement efforts are failing to prevent employers from repeatedly violating safety protections, according to this year’s auditor general report.
In reviewing health and safety initiatives in Ontario, the auditor general looked at companies that had been inspected by the ministry at least three times in the past six years. It found many employers were ordered to fix the same hazard year after year, citing details reported by the Star on a North York industrial bakery where five temporary help agency workers have died.
“The ministry’s enforcement efforts are not preventing many employers from continuing the same unsafe practices,” the report says.
But while employers bear the most legal responsibility for workplace safety, the bulk of the ministry’s fines went to individual workers and supervisors.
“The concern is they’re really not enforcing as they should be,” said Patty Coates, the newly elected head of the Ontario Federation of Labour. “They’re not strong enough with employers and that’s what they really need to focus on.”
“This government needs to put some money into prevention but also to properly investigate, as well as lay charges and fines,” Coates said.
The auditor general report also highlighted issues with the ministry’s enforcement capabilities: its information system, which informs inspection strategy, only contains details of 28 per cent of all business in Ontario — leaving “many workplaces uninspected.”
“(The ministry) proactively inspects about 1 per cent of Ontario businesses each year and investigates an additional 1 per cent of businesses for incidents that have occurred,” the review says.
The report also found the ministry does not systematically target workplaces with high injury rates for inspection.
“The ministry does not identify workplaces for inspection where workers are more likely to get injured, often leaving companies with the highest injury rates uninspected,” it says.
“Also, the ministry cannot identify affiliates of businesses found to have unsafe workplace practices because it does not consistently record ownership details.”
In response to the auditor general’s findings, the Ministry of Labour said it welcomed feedback on “how we are performing as a ministry and recommendations for change that strengthen our ability to continue as a leader in workplace safety.”
Among other measures, the ministry said it was working to improve its information-sharing system and enforcement data to “improve risk-based planning.”
The Star has previously reported on gaps in health and safety enforcement in Ontario, including at North York industrial bakery Fiera Foods and its affiliate factories where five temp agency workers have died since 1999. The Star’s investigation found that the company was repeatedly slapped by the ministry with orders for health and safety violations for everything from lack of proper guarding on machines to unsafely stored gas cylinders over the course of two decades.
A series of proactive inspections launched by the ministry in early 2018 looked at health and safety issues at the factory, but targeted only one Fiera facility. Two workers have died at Fiera and its affiliates since, most recently in September.
“Had the ministry been able to identify the affiliated companies and taken action to inspect all affiliates, health-and-safety concerns may potentially have been identified and proactively addressed. Following this newspaper report, an additional fatality occurred at this company in September 2019,” the auditor general’s report notes.
The company’s general counsel has said the company has co-operated with the ministry and has “committed even more resources and efforts to health and safety initiatives” at its facilities.
The Ministry of Labour’s prevention office budget dropped by $ 16 million this year, despite the fact the body is not taxpayer funded and does not impact the government’s bottom line.
The auditor general’s report noted that based on workers’ compensation data, Ontario has the lowest injury rate of any province since 2009.
John McKinnon of the Toronto-based Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic said those statistics were not a complete picture of workplace safety in the province.
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“During that 10-year period where lost time injury rates are reportedly low, there’s been incredible pressure from the system to control (injury) claims costs,” he said.
“Nobody wants to see people getting injured at work and a lot of injuries are preventable,” he added.
“We do what we can after the fact but prevention of those injuries from happening in the first place is clearly the most important activity that needs to be done.”