Ottawa to issue new guidelines to keep workers safe during COVID-19 crisis

Ottawa to issue new guidelines to keep workers safe during COVID-19 crisis
Ottawa has directed experts to draw up new standards for keeping workers safe — especially those in trucking and food processing — during the COVID-19 pandemic, says federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi.

The guidelines will be distributed to labour ministries across the country, after a rare caucus — via telephone — of Tassi and her provincial counterparts to deal with the risk of workplace infection.

“The health and safety of workers is a top priority for our government,” Tassi said in an interview with the Star.

“There’s never been a call like that that I have been a part of.”

The guidelines will be drawn up by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) and focus specifically on safety measures for truck drivers and those working in food processing — sectors that are critical to the supply of goods during the pandemic.

“All these workers are extremely important,” Tassi said.

The CCOHS has already issued general recommendations on infection-control measures in the workplace including proper ventilation, social distancing and regular cleaning.

“There’s a cry for the sharing of materials that will help support workers,” Tassi said.

Ottawa oversees labour standards for around one million federally regulated workers, in sectors like trucking and rail. The vast majority of workers fall under provincial labour laws.

Tassi said federally, added inspection and enforcement measures are currently “not needed.”

“If we feel that other needs arise ... then of course we as a government are going to look to additional measures,” she said.

Jim Brophy, an occupational disease expert whose research focuses on the health-care sector, said enforcement was critical to ensuring workplace safety — especially at the provincial level.

“Those grocery stores, we’re counting on those workers to provide for us. The food workers that are making food in plants, we’re counting on them. So we should have their backs,” he said.

In the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak, a Royal Commission tasked with investigating Ontario’s response to the crisis issued a damning picture of workplace safety. It pointed to poor enforcement and meagre involvement from the provincial labour ministry.

The commission recommended that during future outbreaks, the ministry be given a “clearly defined decision-making role on worker safety issues”; that it take a “proactive” approach to addressing safety concerns; and that it “expeditiously” prosecute employers who didn’t comply.

Brophy says he doesn’t believe those lessons have been learned.

“The regulatory system that is supposed to ensure workplace safety is totally broken,” he said.

“They’ve been downsizing and understaffing,” he added. “They don’t have the capacity to deal with this.”

In response to questions from the Star, Ontario Ministry of Labour spokesperson Janet Deline said inspectors are “visiting workplaces and performing both proactive and reactive inspections each and every day including weekends and evenings.”

Last year, the provincial government cut $16 million from the Ministry of Labour’s prevention office — the body tasked with preventing occupational illness and injury in Ontario.

The ministry’s latest annual report from 2018-19 projected a 7 per cent reduction in funds dedicated to occupational health and safety this year. (The government has delayed this year’s budget in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.)

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Many of the workers occupying jobs now deemed essential are low-wage and precariously employed, Brophy noted.

“In the crisis economy we’re in, they’re in even a worse position,” he said.

“They’re really going to feel the pressure to do what they’re told, no matter what the situation is.”
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