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Labour group warns against OHS privatization

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com

The Ontario Public Service Union has warned against privatization of occupational health and safety enforcement in view of the province’s current review of the OHS enforcement and prevention system.

Len Elliott, president of OPSEU Local 101 and a Ministry of Labour health and safety inspector, said labour minister Peter Fonseca has not responded to union’s call for a commitment that OHS enforcement will remain in public service, notwithstanding the review.  

“Everything is on the table. That is what is leading us to believe that everything is on the table – privatization, insurance – and until we get that answer that it’s not moving (towards privatization), we are going to continue to pressure Minister Fonseca and Tony Dean until we get that answer,” Elliott told COS in an interview.

Early this year, the Ministry of Labour called for a review of the province’s OHS prevention and enforcement system, and created an expert advisory panel, dubbed the Workplace Safety System Review, led by University of Toronto professor Tony Dean. The panel consists of representatives from the employer and the labour sectors, as well as the academia.

Elliott said OPSEU, which represents Ministry of Labour health and safety inspectors, should be part of the review panel.

“We should be at the table on that expert panel because we are the expert. We enforce the occupational health and safety act in the workplace every single day and we should have a voice in that process,” he said.

The OPSEU leader cautioned that privatizing OHS enforcement could have detrimental effects on workplace safety. He cited as an example the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, which was privatized in 1997.

TSSA assumes consumer safety and standards function formerly performed by the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations, and regulates such public facilities as elevators, escalators and gas stations. 

“One of the core problems with the privatization is that the board of directors of the TSSA is made up of the very employers that the workers have to go in and inspect,” Ellliott said. “You can’t go in and inspect your boss at the end of the day, and recommend a prosecution against your boss. That is just not good, that is the chicken in the hen house, and a complete conflict of interest.”

Sunrise Propane, which had a massive explosion in its Toronto facility in 2008, was regulated by the TSSA.

“The Sunrise Propane explosion in 2008, is a prime example of what happens when safety standards are enforced by a private agency, like the Technical Standards and Safety Authority,” OPSEU president Warren Thomas said in a statement. 

Members of OPSEU demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Labour office in London, Ontario this Thursday “to protest the potential privatization of health and safety enforcement in Ontario.”

Commenting on OPSEU’s statements, Greg Dennis, a spokesperson from the office of the Ministry of Labour, said privatization is “not on the table.”

“We are not discussing privatization,” Dennis told COS in a telephone interview.

Dennis upheld the composition of the expert review panel saying it’s made up of “experts in the field.” He noted that the Ontario Federation of Labour, of which OPSEU is a member, is represented in the review panel. 

He also assured OPSEU that the union’s interest will be looked after. “On top of that, we will give ample opportunity for OPSEU itself to present their views on their role in health and safety in Ontario, and in any other matters related to improving health and safety in Ontario workplaces.”

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