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Safety is everyone’s responsibility

By Dave Rebbitt

The catchphrase, or platitude, “Safety is everyone’s responsibility” has permeated the world of health and safety for a very long time. Most trace it back to Ontario’s Ham Report of 1976. Like most things over time, the Ham Report has been misinterpreted, distorted and even a bit forgotten.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Ham Report. The story begins some years before in the northern Ontario mining industry. In the 1970s, mining was a large employer in Ontario and miners were growing more and more concerned about diseases and ailments that seem to affect miners in much larger numbers. Silicosis and dust were front and centre among concerns as was lung cancer in uranium miners.

Medical evidence of occupational exposure and rising pressure was a hallmark of the 1960s and 1970s as miners tried to move the government to action with no clear success. Finally in 1974, miners at Elliot Lake in Ontario staged a wildcat strike. That strike was the catalyst that saw the Ontario government appoint a royal commission.

The Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines was led by professor James Ham and became known as the Ham Commission. The commission began its work in October 1974 and began hearings in January 1975. The hearings took place in Elliot Lake, Red Lake, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Toronto and Ottawa. Research projects were also commissioned in 1975 and 1976 focussing on occupational diseases.

When the Ham Commission delivered its report to the Ontario government on June 30, 1976, it contained 117 recommendations. Those recommendations made for sweeping change including new legislation. The report had a direct effect on the 1978 Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act and other safety legislation to follow. For those in health and safety, we point to the internal responsibility system (IRS) as coming from the report. In truth, there was much more than that.


Some key recommendations dealt with participation by the workforce. It was recommended that management provide the safety committee with information on work reassignment and seek its advice. It was also recommended that safety committees consist of 50 per cent labour in the future.

Another key recommendation was for mines to appoint worker-auditors to inspect the mine. These were seen as being an advisory function — not as a union representative or having an enforcement function — to identify issues within the mine from the worker perspective. It was also recommended that worker-auditors participate in the investigation of serious injuries or fatalities.

The commission also recommended that work refusals be investigated. Unions felt that workers should be able to refuse unsafe work rather than just being able to refuse to operate a “machine or device” that was unsafe. The commission advocated for a system requiring a written report where there was a work refusal signed by the supervisor recording the worker’s concerns. In cases of disagreement, the matter could be referred to a senior supervisor and observed by a worker-auditor and a report could be sent to the mine inspectorate (regulator).


In 1976, mines suffered from split jurisdiction between the federal Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada (uranium mines) and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Making matters worse within Ontario there was the Mining Act (administered by the Ministry of Natural Resources, mines engineering and inspection branch), the Industrial Safety Act and the Construction Safety Act (both administered by the Ministry of Labour). The occupational health protection branch of the Ontario Ministry of Health also provided other support services.

The role, composition and performance of the Mining Inspectorate were strongly criticized in many hearings before the commission. This led to recommendations that new legislation be created and that occupational health and safety branch, be established in the Ministry of Labour that would encompass the mines engineering and inspection branch in the Ministry of Natural Resources, effectively creating a single inspection and regulatory agency.

Controlling exposure

The commission noted there was a lack of consistent codes of practice in managing and tracking exposures. Using the findings of commission research projects it was also recommended that exposure levels be set for dust and silica. Diesel emissions were also identified as an area of concern and recommendations were made for a code of practice to control emissions. Additionally noise level mapping was recommend for work areas with sound pressure levels at 85 decibels or higher. Audiometric testing and the retention of audiometric records was also recommended.

Internal responsibility system

The commission made it clear that accountability must go to the top of the organization. It clearly agreed that “the employer must accept the full legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace.” The effectiveness of management and supervision was seen as the key to a safe workplace.

To illustrate their concept of an organization where “tasks are correctly integrated there is a unity of responsibilities,” they dubbed the concept the “internal responsibility system” and advocated a standard at every level for:

•providing detailed job descriptions

•specifying the personal prerequisites necessary to carry out the work characteristic of the job

•the definition of the responsibilities entailed in the job.

The table included in the report does lay out specific and interrelated responsibilities for workers, first line supervisors, second line supervisors, superintendents, managers and chief executives.

The system implementation and monitoring was clearly envisioned to be the responsibility of management and the commission recommended that management review the performance of its internal responsibility system, placing emphasis on:

•responsibility to detect and to report departures from standard conditions at every level of operations

•location of responsibility for ensuring that identified departures are dealt with

•procedures for committing the resources to correct anomalies

•procedures for checking the action already taken and still to be taken.

In the 1970s there was a great focus by employers on unsafe acts as the cause of incidents. The commission made the following comment:

“The apparently common view that the great majority of accidents are the direct result of nothing more than unsafe acts or unsafe conditions is, in the commission's opinion, too restricted a view of the human problem of accidental injuries.”

The commission advocated the internal responsibility system to ensure that management and supervisors met their responsibilities. This meant, in part, to provide clear responsibilities and standards to the workforce. The company needed a working internal responsibility system that ensured a safe workplace. The clear role of the safety committee along with worker-auditors providing direct advice through inspections of the workplace are a key part of the feedback system to ensure a working IRS. There was even a recognition that audits would be needed from time to time to ensure the system was operating.

As alluded to by the commission we are often distracted by incidents and fail to see the gaps in the IRS. The easy choice to blame those involved and not look further to see where proper equipment, tools, supervision or conditions were not provided continues to reinforce the myth that incidents are caused by workers acting unsafely.

The internal responsibility system is based on the premise that everyone has distinct safety responsibilities and these responsibilities are interrelated. In practice this means that each level is responsible for ensuring the level below meets their responsibilities while meeting its own. The feedback system can act as an assurance this is happening but must be bolstered by external audits.

Evident today

Today we see evidence of the Ham Report in many places. Our safety legislation and its accountability or responsibility clauses reflect the concept of the IRS. The employer is ultimately responsible but every employee has distinct responsibilities with employers and their representatives (supervisors and managers) having additional responsibilities. We see a more regimented and regulated approach to work refusals, and every safety committee has at least 50 per cent labour members. Many organizations today try to involve workers in inspections of the workplace in order to improve engagement and effectiveness.

Even regulatory agencies have a fairly uniform mandate and composition across Canada. Most employers only have to deal with a single agency and the legislation is less complex than it was many years ago.

Workplace standards for exposure levels, medical surveillance, and recordkeeping are universal today, where in the 1970s safe levels and medical surveillance were not clearly spelled out. In mines, electric equipment is used whenever possible to avoid diesel emissions. Standards have been established for noise exposure and protection.

The Ham Report gave us a great leap forward in our approach to safety and the regulation of workplace safety. Safety is everyone’s responsibility? To me, it is an empty statement that implies no one is responsible. I prefer to say that “Everyone has safety responsibilities." That was the intent of the Ham Report when promoting the internal responsibility system.

Dave Rebbitt

Dave Rebbitt is the president of Rarebit Consulting providing services across Western Canada. With almost 30 years in health and safety, Rebbitt has built numerous health, safety, and environment management systems along with some innovative processes and even developed specialized PPE. He is an experienced speaker and writer on a wide variety of topics. He also develops and instructs courses at the University of Alberta OHS program. He can be reached through
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