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Quebec contractors concerned over new OH&S rep requirement

Don Wall
Quebec contractors concerned over new OH&S rep requirement
CNESST — Quebec construction unions are adamant that new health and safety regulations scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 should be implemented as planned. Pictured, the province’s health and safety commission known as CNESST investigated a death of a Lafarge employee in Gatineau in April 2022.

Quebec contractors are asking the provincial government to delay implementation of a new system requiring new health and safety representatives for large jobsites because there are too many unanswered questions about how the new regime will work.

The introduction of the new rep on some sites will supplement existing health and safety reps employed by contractors, explained Eric Cote, president of the Corporation des Entrepreneurs Generaux du Quebec (CEGQ), a contractors association. He says sweeping new health and safety regulations contained in Bill 59 have major gaps, especially dealing with the role of the new health and safety reps who are supposed to be on the job on large new projects beginning Jan. 1.

There may well be confusion and discord between contractors and unions on jobsites opening up after Jan. 1 unless the government finds a way to fix problems in the legislation or else delays implementation of the bill, he said.

“People will be opening new jobsites, they’ll send a safety rep, and we’ll have to negotiate jobsite by jobsite,” said Cote.

“Do we have to pay the union? It’s not clear and the government says it’s up to the parties to agree to what they find most effective to do.

“We need something clear.”

Cote said as Jan. 1 approaches, many CEGQ members are looking for answers. They had 240 members attending a virtual training session a couple of weeks ago.

He said the uncertainty includes how the two reps will work together; whether the new rep will be an existing employee with new health and safety duties or a dedicated new health and safety worker; and what the salary will be.

“The law doesn’t mention it,” Cote said of who the new rep will work for. “It could actually be a baker with a safety card coming in and jumping out of a truck and since the safety rep is not affiliated or has no hierarchy with the GC or those responsible for safety, do you force us to hire him?”

The law was passed in September 2021, the first implementation phase came in October 2022 and the phase-in will be complete in 2024.

Occupational health and safety in Quebec is administered by a commission known as CNESST.

CNESST explained in a statement to the Daily Commercial News the new rep will work part-time on a site that employs more than 10 construction workers and full-time on a construction project that employs 100 or more construction workers or where the project value exceeds $12 million.

Contractors are encouraged to visit a CNESST FAQ section on its website.

“It will…be enhanced in 2023 to reflect the concerns experienced by workplaces,” explained the CNESST.

Over 70 inspectors have been trained to be able to start work Jan. 1, the CNESST added.

Construction unions staged a one-day protest last week at the CNESST offices in Montreal, urging the provincial government not to delay reforms.

“We’ve been ready and waiting for these provisions for 40 years,” said Simon Levesque, head of health and safety at construction union FTQ-Construction, in an interview with the Canadian Press. He said construction workers will be better protected by the presence of the new health and safety representatives.

“It has proven itself; it worked in the mines, where there was a rate of work-related deaths and injuries the equivalent of construction. And they have improved a lot,” said Levesque.

Labour lawyer Shari Munk-Manel of McMillan, who has written on Bill 59, commented on Cote’s charges that the legislation was “imprecise,” saying, “Since these are new provisions that have not yet been analyzed by the courts and hence have not yet been the subject of case law, it is difficult to know exactly how the various obligations will be interpreted.”

Legal analysis of Bill 59 from the firm Norton Rose Fulbright in 2020 said the bill is “virtually one-sided” favouring the unions.

Cote agreed with that assessment and said the CEGQ originally fought against the law but since it was passed it has repeatedly asked the government to address its concerns.

“The CEGQ sat with the minister last December, telling him there were some holes,” Cote said. “OK, we lost a fight. Can we fix this so we can actually make it work?”

Munk-Manel said the new regime, with two health and safety reps, was introduced to ensure more complete coverage of the risks and necessary preventive measures in the workplace.

“The responsibilities of the employer and employee representatives are different and well defined in the law,” she said. “These measures are mostly meant to complement each other.”

Cote said there are no references in existence to indicate how the new measures will work. He said he is concerned if the new rep becomes a full-time worker with employers footing the bill, including a salary, office and computer, the cost could be significant.

As for next steps, the CEGQ hopes to have a meeting with the Ministry of Labour soon to look for solutions.

Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.

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