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OH&S Legal Update: New workplace laws impact the construction industry

OH&S Legal Update: New workplace laws impact the construction industry

Two new laws from the provincial government that passed in the last several months will have a dramatic impact on the construction industry in Ontario.

Bills 27 and 88, or the Working for Workers Act, 2021 and 2022, respectively, were recently passed into law and made significant changes to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA).

These new laws focus on worker rights and protections. They offer no innovation or industry stakeholder collaboration to improve worker safety; but they do increase OHSA penalties.  

Bill 27, among other changes, adds the two following new provisions to the ESA:

A requirement that Ontario employers with 25 or more employees have a written “disconnecting from work” policy by June 2, 2022; and

A prohibition from entering into non-compete agreements with employees, retroactively to Oct. 25, 2021 and onwards.

Bill 27 does not give workers an absolute right to disconnect from work, rather it requires employers to establish a policy setting out their approach to “disconnecting.” An employer’s policy should be based on the unique needs of their business and industry. We are helping companies draft their policies and would be delighted to discuss your needs with you.  

The new prohibition against non-competition agreements have several exceptions for “executives” and when there is a “sale of a business.”

For a construction example, consider a key estimator or superintendent can no longer be required to sign an employment contract that they will not “cross the street” to a competitor. This may make the business vulnerable to the loss of top talent in a very competitive job market.     

Under Bill 88, there are a number of critical changes that the construction industry should be aware of:

Employers will be required to provide naloxone kits to respond to a potential opioid overdose at their workplace; kits must be present at the construction site if the employer becomes aware, or ought reasonably to be aware, that there may be a risk of a worker having an opioid overdose in their workplace; there must be a trained worker who is in charge of the kit, who can identify the symptoms of an opioid overdose, and who can safely administer the naloxone; date for implementation still to be announced.    

The OHSA was amended to increase the maximum financial penalty for officers and directors from $100,000 to $1.5 million, a 1,500 per cent increase, and up to 12 months in jail, or both.

The OHSA was also amended to increase the maximum penalty for a worker or supervisor from $100,000 to $500,000, a 500 per cent increase in addition to up to 12 months imprisonment.

The limitation period has doubled for commencing a prosecution under the OHSA from one year to two years. This new limitation period will take effect on July 1.

For the purpose of determining the penalty, the amended OHSA will now provide a non-exhaustive list of aggravating factors that may be taken into consideration by a court in sentencing convicted individuals and corporations.

We have a number of concerns regarding Bill 88 that include the following.

First, it is not clear why higher penalties are necessary or how they will result in safety improvements. Punishment after an accident does nothing to improve prevention. The authors are not aware of any evidence that the increase in fines in 2017 resulted in a material decrease in injuries or fatalities in workplaces across the province. The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD) has not provided clear evidence of a safety gain to support these extraordinary increases in financial penalties to directors, officers, supervisors and workers.

Second, the government’s decision to double the limitation period for the laying of charges is confusing and surprising. Most MLTSD investigations are completed within weeks or several months. By providing its inspectors with an additional year to lay charges, investigations may be extended unreasonably placing additional stress and anxiety on construction industry supervisors and workers since they will not know whether or not they will be charged under the OHSA for up to two years.

This change will put further pressure on employers to retain legal counsel, conducting a privileged and confidential internal investigation following an incident, preserving evidence under the protection of that privilege, and get legal advice on preparing their due diligence defence. MLTSD inspectors who wait the full two years to lay charges, without reasonable explanation, may actually strengthen an accused’s argument that their rights under the Charter have been infringed.

Bills 27 and 88 give construction companies, and  business leaders, even more legal responsibilities and risk of liability.

In the authors’ view, it is more important than ever to establish an effective health and safety management system, obtain legal advice whenever an incident occurs that results in the MLTSD attending your workplace and make safety legal risk management an ongoing priority for your business.

Norm Keith and Matthew Stanton of KPMG Law LLP are available for training, advice and representation in all aspects of compliance with the OHSA and its regulations and may be contacted at nkeith@kpmg.ca or 416-476-2002 or 416-540-3435. You can also send OH&S Legal Update column ideas or comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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