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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Health and safety: A prescription for a healthy and safe workplace

By Mark Keelan

Sometimes it feels good to be right. Even better is when being right causes changes to be made that will help to protect the health and safety of workers in this province.

In 2001, one of the plans in the current government’s election campaign was to eliminate red tape in order to make BC more attractive to businesspeople. Subsequent to their election, the government ordered that regulations be slashed by one-third. As a result, the Workers’ Compensation Board set out to eliminate many of the regulations that accompany the Workers Compensation Act.

The business community urged the WCB to move toward performance-based regulations, which set standards or goals that companies say they will strive to achieve. Employers argued that nobody was in a better position to determine how best to achieve the goal of reducing workplace injuries than the individual employers themselves. They stated that the prescriptive regulations then in effect hampered their ability to be competitive.

Organized labour disagreed. The BC Federation of Labour and its affiliates, including the BCTF, strenuously argued that prescriptive regulations should not only be left in place, but should be strengthened. Labour feared that when it came to a conflict between keeping workers safe and maintaining the bottom line, employers would cut corners.

The Workers’ Compensation Board (now called WorkSafeBC) decided to move toward performance-based regulations. Between 2002 and 2004, several regulations were changed. One of the most significant changes was to the first-aid regulation. In March 2004, 27 pages of prescriptive regulations were reduced to 3 pages of performance-based regulations.

A key component of the changed first-aid regulation removed the obligation for employers to conduct a risk assessment of their operations. The risk assessment must take into consideration things like the number of workers who may require first aid, the nature and extent of the hazards in the workplace, and the types of injuries likely to occur. Based on the results of the risk assessment, the employer has to make decisions about such things as how many first-aid attendants must be on duty at one time, what level of training the first-aid attendants need, and what type of first-aid supplies are required.

Interestingly, despite the fact that WorkSafeBC gave employers what they asked for, the negative response was almost immediate. Employers discovered it was difficult to determine appropriate levels of first-aid coverage without the prescriptive regulations. They were soon asking WorkSafeBC for changes.

The WorkSafeBC board of directors has approved changes to the first-aid regulations that include a partial reversal of the trend toward performance-based regulations. The new regulations, which will come into force in early 2008, prescribe the number of first-aid attendants required in a workplace, the level of training the first-aid attendants must have, and the type of first-aid supplies that must be on hand. The new regulations were lifted directly from what was replaced in 2004.

The new first-aid regulations follow on the heels of new regulations regarding the orientation and training of young and new workers. These new regulations were outlined in the September 2007 issue of Teacher. However, noteworthy is the fact that the young- and new-worker regulations are very prescriptive.

Changes to the regulations governing workers who work alone, or in isolation, are a further indication that WorkSafeBC may be moving away from performance-based regulations. The changes have just been approved by the WorkSafeBC board of directors and will come into force February 1, 2008. They strengthen the existing requirements and require employers to either eliminate hazards associated with working alone or minimize the hazards to the lowest level practicable. Most of the attention being paid to the changes focusses on the requirement to prepay for fuel products at gas stations and the increased security for convenience store clerks. However, given that a large number of BCTF members work alone, the changes to these regulations should be looked at carefully because they provide more protections than are currently in place.

The apparent shift back by WorkSafeBC to more prescriptive regulations should be cause for celebration by working people. It is evidence once again that when workers stick together, positive things happen.

Mark Keelan is the BCTF’s health and safety officer for prevention.

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