September 29, 2004
Launched Minister’s Health and Safety Action groups
Bentley renews emphasis on workplace safety
Ontario Labour Minister Chris Bentley was interviewed recently about issues related to the construction industry. This is the second in a four-part series from that interview.
In the wake of a disturbing number of fatalities and injuries in Ontario’s construction industry last year, provincial Labour Minister Chris Bentley has embarked on a crusade to put a renewed emphasis on workplace health and safety.
He hopes to do that by building on four pillars—education, training, the right legislative framework and enforcement.
“The increase in fatalities last year is very, very disturbing,” he said in a recent interview. “Apart from the fatalities, more than 300,000 people in Ontario workplaces are injured every year. It’s an enormous incalculable human cost. It’s an enormous cost to our health care system, a huge cost to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board through increased pressure on premiums, and the cost to businesses from injuries every year is estimated to be more than $12 billion in lost productivity, increased training and related costs.”
Last year, construction fatalities increased 50 per cent in Ontario. There were 30 construction deaths in 2003, the highest level in more than a decade. Across all sectors almost 100,000 people suffered injuries severe enough to force them to miss time at work. Another 185,000 were injured but remained on the job.
To combat the problem, Bentley first launched the Minister’s Health and Safety Action groups, one of which is in construction, because it became clear to him that the expertise to cut injuries and fatalities already exists in the sectors.
“Business and labour organizations that came to speak to me about various issues always got around to talking about health and safety. They would tell me about the great things that they are doing within their jurisdiction and they’d say: ‘Why isn’t government at the table.’”
“I quickly realized that if I could take the expertise that was in my boardroom at any one point in time and make it apply to all the workplaces in the province we would instantly have safer workplaces.”
So the minister set up action groups in construction, health and manufacturing. Experts have been enlisted in each sector to identify best practices, programs and policies and then join with employers, unions and workers to implement them swiftly.
The labour ministry is also beefing up enforcement by hiring 200 new health and safety inspectors that will specifically target companies with the highest injury rates.
The government hopes to prevent 60,000 workplace injuries a year by 2008, which would translate into savings for businesses of up to $960 million per year.
“One of the first things I was told unanimously was that you don’t have the enforcement capacity. When I started there were 205 inspectors. There used to be 278 when the Tories started in 1995.
“We completed the hiring of 25 more. That’s still not enough. So we recently announced the hiring of 200 more health and safety inspectors with a bit of a twist. This new 200 are going to be targeted to the sectors, to the workplaces that represent only two per cent of the workplaces but they generate 10 per cent of the injuries and 21 per cent of the costs.”
Next, said Bentley, government hopes to improve education and training and get the attention of business.
“There is a lot of prevention knowledge out there. What we have to figure out next is how do we get the attention of businesses, the attention of the CEOs in particular, that health and safety matters.
“One of the direct ways, of course, is through the bottom line. We’re looking at ways to do that and we’re looking at ways to improve education and training.”
For example, Bentley said many in the action groups have suggested that the province should have mandatory young and entry-level worker training that includes onsite hazard recognition, not just book or computer-based training.
“That’s one of the things we are seriously looking at because young workers are six times more likely to be injured in the first month of their employment than they are at any other time in their employment history.”
Bentley said the Workplace Gateway, a Web site that provides a one-stop access to information on a range of workplace topics, is another step in the right direction.
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