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Jail guards locked out after bulletproof vest brouhaha

HAMILTON, Ont. (Canadian OH&S News)


HAMILTON, Ont. (Canadian OH&S News)

Guards at the Barton Street jail in Hamilton are digging in their heels after a clash with management over safety gear has turned into a full-fledged labour lockout.

The dispute began on Aug. 13, after guards at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre (HWDC) wanted to don safety vests to search for a piece of metal which had gone missing. The guards feared the inmates may fashion the electrical socket plate cover into a weapon, creating a potential risk to their safety.

But management at HWDC refused, arguing the vests could intimidate the inmates.

The Ministry of Labour also investigated, and concluded that there was no threat to the correctional workers’ safety.

Management eventually agreed to allow the workers to search the fourth floor of the jail while wearing vests, said minister for correctional services Madeleine Meilleur in a statement, adding that “[the labour ministry] also noted that a provision of the Ontario Health and Safety Act allowing workers certain conditions to refuse to perform their duties did not apply in this case.”

Meetings between the local union Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), HWDC management, and Minister Meilleur late last month had reached an impasse. As a result, the guards have been off the job since mid-August.

Now, both parties have moved on from the vest question, but remain at odds — this time over whether disciplinary action should be taken against the guards.

“Members are not getting paid, and they have the threat of discipline hanging over their heads,” said Dan Sidsworth, chair of OPSEU’s corrections division. “We can’t negotiate with a gun to our head. If there’s going to be reprisals for bringing forward health and safety concerns, then it needs to be addressed. Basically, we’re being locked out and that’s our official position.”

According to OPSEU, the ministry is pursuing a “no work, no pay” penalty for the prison guards. Sidsworth maintains that the issue is a health and safety concern, not a labour dispute — a point of contention which could upturn the negotiating table.

“We’ve been dealing with this as a health and safety concern from the beginning — so the local executive, everybody gets to have an opinion. Because it’s a health and safety concern, if management doesn’t look off of their position, I don’t see an end in sight,” he said.

The vests, which are ballistic- and stab-resistant, come with specific restrictions, and guards are only allowed to wear them when doing community escorts or searches for sharp-edged weapons. In this particular case, Sidsworth said the metal plate posed a risk.

“Statistics have shown that the level of violence has really spiked, it’s increased over the past two years. There have been over 3,000 assaults, in 2010 and 2011, in the province,” he explained, adding that the number of assaults on staff for that time amounted to 1,003, with inmate-on-inmate violence making up the difference.

Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDPs and an MPP for Hamilton, raised the issue at Queen’s Park on Aug. 27, after about 100 people rallied on the lawn in support of the prison workers.

“The corrections workers at the Barton Street jail are highly trained professionals whose personal safety concerns matter, and they should not be ignored,” Horwath said, adding that workers have a right to refuse unsafe work without fear of discipline from their employer — even if their employer is the government of Ontario.

In the meantime, the ministry has plans to file an illegal strike application with the provincial labour relations board, while managers fill in for day-to-day duties at the jail.

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5 Comments » for Jail guards locked out after bulletproof vest brouhaha
  1. Patrick says:

    It is a safety issue – plain and simple – no surprise the Ontario government and ministry would see it differently.

  2. Chrissa O'Brien says:

    Subject: Ministry of Labour might have to rule against itself today!

    Today, a landmark decision will be made by the Ontario Labour Relations
    Board as to whether or not an employer can punish/fire employees for

    insisting on wearing their safety equipment. If the Labour Board permits
    this, precedent will be set which will affect workers in every occupation.

    It would mean that employees can no longer count on the Health and Safety
    Act to defend them if they refuse to work without protection against things
    like chemical fumes, mismanaged construction sites or biological waste . And
    that would mean being forced into danger by any employer because workers
    could legally face punishments and/or termination if they refuse. With a
    precedent about to be set, this is no longer about 200 officers in an
    obscure jail in Hamilton anymore.

    At the hearing today in Toronto, one Ontario Ministry “(Labour)” will be
    forced into the dilemma of potentially ruling against one of it’s own
    representatives as well as it’s “payroll-mate” (the Ministry of Corrections)
    over their insane decision to attempt to force officers to remove their
    stab-proof vests while searching for makeshift weapons in the Hamilton jail.

    With no pay for the last 4 weeks and reprisals hanging over their heads, the
    officers still report for duty every day and night shift but are sent away
    because they request to be allowed to wear their safety equipment.

    Unable to financially starve the officers into silent compliance, the
    Ministry of Corrections then tried to spin this as some kind of illegal
    strike and called for a hearing at their sister Ministry, the Labour Board.
    And today, we will all see if they can successfully punish and/or terminate
    these 200 officers and set a new precedent that will have the same
    consequences to endanger all workers.

    Despite the political powers so clearly weighted against this small group,
    these officers are standing up within the provision of the Health and Safety
    Act; a law that is worth fighting to protect – for themselves and for
    others.

    Please be a witness to this hearing and please report the facts to the
    public, because everyone should know whether or not they will have any right
    to workplace safety anymore.

  3. rick says:

    I’m no expert here, but when dealing with contraband and the threat of life safety for the staff as well as the inmates,wouldn’t the plate be considered a potential sharp edged instrument? I believe the workers exercised their right under the OH&S legislation and further followed the policy of the institution related to searches and when the vests should be worn. In this case, based on the information available the guards took the right action. To suggest otherwise is putting people at risk.

  4. Dave says:

    I am certified member of the Health and Safety Committee and a correctional officer. I have seen many issues go by the wayside at the expense of correctional officer safety. To put it simply, we (workers in correctional institutions) do not clearly fall into categories under the Health and Safety Act. The act caters to commercial buildings, factories and construction sites. It is often difficult to find a section under the Act that pertains to “an unsafe condition” in a correctional facility. Most times the same terms are regurgitated back to the workers (from Ministry of Labour), most commonly, “this is an inherent part of your job.” Another “cop out” is, “this does not meet the requirements of section …. of the H&S Act and therefore the worker should negotiate with the management to come up with a joint decision at the local level. This is often an impossible task if both parties are at opposite sides of an issue. Common ground cannot always be found. In other words the Ministry of Labour will NEVER interfere with the day to day operations of a facility as it creates province wide precedents. The issue is once again dumped on the worker. Does the worker do what he/she knows to be unsafe? Or refuse to do the unsafe work and face sanctions?(as in the case of Hamilton correctional officers). Or in rare occassions, the employer relents (or sees the logic) and the work is done in a safe, professional and efficient way. We like to think the latter would be the way to strive for but it sure doesn’t seem that way some times. In the long run the work gets done, and employees are satisfied that they will go home safely to their families. Management should understand that we are here to reach the same goals, just in a “SAFE” way. I believe we have earned the right to be referred to as “CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS”. Not many people would like to take our places in this line of work but are quickly opinionated. Look at it from our side for a change. Thanks.

  5. SAWED OFF says:

    IT wasnt a plate it was a piece of steel missing from the fourth floor

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