It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted each and every area of our lives in different ways. One such area was our employment, and the ways in which we perform our work. As we continue to make our way out of the pandemic, employers must understand the duties they owe to their employees under health and safety legislation, as well as their worker’s rights.
Ontario Employers Have a Duty to Protect their Worker’s Health and Safety under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA)
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), Ontario employers are required to take every reasonable precaution to protect their workers from being injured or becoming ill from a work-related incident. More specifically, employers are required to:
- ensure that their workers are knowledgeable about different workplace hazards by providing information, instruction and supervision;
- ensure that workplace supervisors understand how to protect the health and safety of workers;
- create policies and procedures related to health and safety in the workplace;
- ensure that those in the workplace conform with both the law and health and safety policies and procedures;
- ensure that workers are equipped with the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and have received training on its proper use.
While COVID-19 has certainly created a number of risks that have impacted all of us, employers have a heightened responsibility to diligently think through how they can make their workplaces safe from health risks. Where applicable, this assessment should be done alongside the joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative, both of which are mandated by the OHSA in certain circumstances.
With limited exceptions, if a workplace regularly employs twenty or more workers, the employer must have a joint health and safety committee. If a workplace does not require such a committee but there are regularly more than five employees working, the employer must designate at least one employee to act as health and safety representative. The individual selected cannot be a managerial employee.
Employers who are Non-Compliant with the OHSA Face Significant Penalties
Employers who fail to comply with the OHSA’s provisions or regulations may be liable for fines as high as $1,500,000.
In addition, complaints centering upon workplace health and safety concerns are investigated by the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. The Ministry has increased its capacity to carry out workplace inspections during the pandemic, and employers must understand that a failure to act in accordance with the OHSA could lead to a stop-work order.
These significant penalties illustrate how important health and safety are in the workplace. This is all the more true as Ontario continues to fight against the spread of COVID-19 and the threat of workplace outbreaks. For these reasons, employers need to ensure that they are on the right side of the law.
The Province of Ontario’s Significant Investment in Workplace Health and Safety
Ontario’s Small Business Health and Safety Training Plan is a recent illustration of just how significant employee well-being is to the province. In July, the Ontario government announced that it would invest $10.5 million to help up to 60,000 small businesses, by providing free health and safety training for the next three years. The Plan covers the costs associated with training health and safety representatives on workplace safety in a number of sectors, including construction and retail.
The Bottom Line
If you are an employer in Ontario, the law requires you to do your part in protecting the health and safety of your workers. While this has always been an important responsibility, the impact of COVID-19 has made the employer’s duty even more significant. An employer who finds themselves on the wrong side of the law in relation to employee health and safety may face serious consequences.
If you have any questions or concerns about your workplace, please do not hesitate to contact us for expert legal advice and guidance.