Key players in the construction industry say one important element is still missing with the Ontario government’s recently released cannabis framework — giving employers the tools they need to maintain health and safety on the jobsite.
The federal Liberals are planning to legalize marijuana by July 2018 and Ontario is the first province in Canada to publicly announce a comprehensive plan to regulate federally legalized cannabis.
David Frame, director of government relations for the Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA), who has been involved in consultations at the provincial level, said while the government has recognized there is a health and safety issue in the workplace, there is still a long way to go.
In a section entitled workplace safety, the plan states, "the province will be developing resources to guide employers, labour groups and others as they manage workplace safety issues related to impairment at work through education and awareness initiatives."
"I’m disappointed with that but it’s at least a step forward," said Frame. "What we would like the government to do particularly in the context of the construction industry is to recognize that workers need to report to work free of substances that can impair their ability to work safely."
Frame and the OGCA are asking the government to implement regulations in the construction industry under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, as they have done for other industries, restricting the use of substances that can cause impairment while on the job.
"I think by doing that, at least it gives one more tool for employers and unions to be able to deal with the problem," he noted. "They’re essentially saying they are going to leave it up to the workplaces to deal with the issue of impairment. If that’s going to be the approach, they need to make sure the workplaces have the tools to do that."
Calling the framework "safe" and "sensible," a release issued by the Ministry of the Attorney General states legislation will be introduced later this fall, following the conclusion of province-wide consultations.
"There seems to be very little focus on health and safety and that’s kind of an alarm bell," commented Ian Cunningham, president of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations, adding the Ministry of the Attorney General did address workplace health and safety issues in their consultations.
"It’s critically important for all businesses, but particularly construction businesses where the work is generally more hazardous than other types of work, that workers come to work ready and fit to do their jobs. It’s not acceptable for their own safety and for the safety of others working on a construction project that they might even be moderately impaired from the use of cannabis or any other legal or illegal substance."
Key elements of the government’s approach to transition to the legalization of cannabis include: prohibiting the use of recreational cannabis in public places and workplaces and restricting the use to private residences; proposing the minimum age to use, purchase or possess recreational cannabis in Ontario is 19 years old; and having the LCBO oversee the legal retail of cannabis in Ontario through new standalone cannabis stores and an online order service.
Approximately 150 standalone stores will be opened by 2020, servicing all regions of the province and online distribution will be available starting July 2018. The intent is to ensure that there will be only one legal retail distributor for cannabis in Ontario.
The province will also pursue an enforcement strategy to help shut down illegal operations.
Sean Reid, vice-president of development and member relations for the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), said the fact the government has chosen a "highly managed" approach to the distribution of cannabis shows they are acknowledging there may be challenges ahead.
"There are still so many unanswered questions especially pertaining to employer rights and responsibilities," said Reid. "What is most on the minds of our members right now is what is this really going to mean at the end of the day for safety on our work sites and what ability do employers have to manage that."
Frame was also concerned about the proposed timelines with cannabis expected to be legalized by July 1, 2018.
"The timelines for this are ridiculously tight and outside of the health and safety affects, Ontario has an incredible job to put a regulatory regime in place, distribution channels and recognized suppliers for this whole thing," he said. "I don’t see how it can be done at a level that will meet the demand for July 1."
Reid said steps need to be taken to make sure it’s rolled out properly.
"Our view is if we have to do this then we have to do it right and we have to take the time to do it right," he stated. "If key stakeholder communities are saying this timeline is unrealistic for us to implement this safely and responsibly then the government needs to look carefully at that."
Gilbert Brulotte, past chair of the Canadian Construction Association, who is also a member of a coalition of associations representing federally regulated groups on the matter, said although some progress has been made in the sense that safety has been recognized as a relevant topic, he is convinced it’s not getting the attention it deserves.
"The impression is that the initial focus has more to do with age and commercialization, how are we going to distribute it and sell it, versus how are we going to deal with the consequence of that commercialization," Brulotte noted.
He pointed out testing mechanisms and impairment thresholds are in place to deal with alcohol impairment, but not cannabis.
"This has always been an area that the coalition has focused on…we want a clear recognized way to test, a clear threshold of what will be considered impairment," explained Brulotte, adding whatever the method, the government needs to make sure employers don’t go against individual human rights. "We can deal with it if we have the tools to deal with it."
Recently, the federal government announced up to $274 million to support law enforcement and border efforts to detect and deter drug-impaired driving as well as enforce the proposed cannabis legalization and regulation. According to a release, subject to parliamentary approval and Royal Assent, these investments will support the government’s commitment to provide regulated and restricted access to cannabis no later than July 2018.