Are Your Supervisors Exposing You to Potential Workplace Liability?

I was speaking to a client a few weeks ago who is the Vice-President of Operations for a warehousing and distribution company with several facilities in the Toronto area.  Our conversation was centered on the Ministry of Labour’s (MOL) compliance requirements and how it is getting increasingly difficult to stay on top of all that is enforced under the umbrella of the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).

The Dangerous Blind Spot of False Confidence

I asked him if he was aware of his personal liability should a permanent or temporary worker be injured in any of his facilities.  He hesitated, and said; “our company employs a dedicated Health & Safety “expert” that takes care of all of that, so I’m likely OK”.  I agreed that he was “likely OK”, but, for his own peace of mind and for the sake of his superiors up to and including the owners; he should take the time to review the minutes of the company’s most recent Joint Health & Safety Committee (JHSC) meeting.

Last week he called me to inform me that he had taken my advice and reviewed not only the most recent JHSC meeting minutes, but the last couple over a period of 9 months.  The good news was that the JHSC meetings were taking place on a consistent basis, BUT, he noticed that many issues/hazards that had been identified and documented by the JHSC committee members had not been acted upon, and what was worse, was that the same hazards continually were brought forward from the previous meetings without any action by anyone to repair or resolve the issues!

Just Knowing You Have a Problem Is Not Enough – You’ve Got to Do Something About It

I explained to him that should an injury occur that was caused by any of these hazards that had been previously identified, but left unaddressed, could result in serious consequences for both the company and him personally.  The MOL would definitely view unaddressed documented hazards as “indifference” to the safety of the workers, and likely penalize the company and individuals involved in the supervision of the injured worker(s) which could include him and his superiors.

The Next Obvious Question – Why Weren’t These Hazards Fixed?

After all, they had been identified and documented for several months.  After closer investigation it was evident that the Supervisors, two levels below the VP of Operations, were completely ignorant of the severe consequences of not addressing these ongoing safety issues.

Health and Safety Responsibility and Training Spans the Entire Organization

Though Supervisors were made aware of the hazards by the JHSC and the Health and Safety “expert”, no one had trained the Supervisors of their duties and liabilities of providing a safe workplace for all workers under their direction.  In addition, other violations of the Occupational H&S Act were being committed as a result of this lack of H&S training to the Supervisors.

Simple orientation such as WHMIS and safe operating procedures etc., were all hit and miss by the various Supervisors, leaving not only the workers at risk, but significantly exposing the management and ownership at serious risk of MOL fines, work stoppage orders, and potential criminal offences!

Lessons Learned From This Experience

The invaluable lessons for my client were:

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  • Without corrective action being taken, having a Health & Safety expert on staff and/or an “active” JHSC team is simply not enough
  • Knowledge, responsibility and compliance for workplace Health and Safety extends right down to the Supervisory level
  • Fines and punishment for violations are not just for companies – liability extends to individuals and management as well, including criminal charges and jail time.
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The MOL has produced a short but very informative video on “What To Expect During An Employment Standards Inspection” that can be viewed online.

Always Being Ready for a Visit by the Ministry of Labour is Crucial

Temporary staffing agencies, given the responsibility they have for the WSIB premiums of the temporary staff they place, must of necessity stay abreast of the current health and safety regulatory requirements.

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