(Canadian OH&S News) — Unions across Canada are applauding the adoption of a bill that may lead to harsher sentences for assaults on public transit operators.
Bill S-221, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (assaults against public transit operators), passed third reading and was awaiting royal assent as of Feb. 16. The bill amended Section 269 of the Criminal Code to require judges to consider a transit driver’s occupation as an “aggravating circumstance” in sentencing. It applies to drivers of buses, paratransit vehicles, taxis, subways, streetcars and ferries.
The bill was introduced by Conservative Senator Bob Runciman, who was spurred to take action regarding violence against transit operators following an incident in 2013. A man assaulted an OC Transpo bus driver in Ottawa, then dragged him out onto the street and continued beating him (COHSN, Sept. 29, 2014). Although the driver did not return to work for months because of his injuries, the perpetrator escaped jail time and received a suspended sentence, despite having 17 previous assault convictions.
Unifor applauded the adoption of the bill, noting in a statement that the union had been working with all parties in the Senate and House of Commons to gain amendments to the Criminal Code to include options for stiffer penalties to those convicted of assaulting drivers. “Everybody should be safe at work,” said Jerry Dais, national president of Unifor, in the statement. “Bus and taxi drivers provide a very valuable public service, and they shouldn’t have to face violence in their workplace.”
Nathan Woods, a transit operator in Vancouver and president of Local 111 of Unifor, said that workplace safety is a non-partisan issue and that he was thrilled that every party could get behind Bill S-221. “Many operators have suffered horrible assaults,” he said. “We can do more to improve their safety, but this is an important step.” Woods testified to a Senate committee in 2014 that approximately 2,000 bus driver assaults are reported each year in Canada.
Unifor said in the statement that changes to the Criminal Code alone would not eliminate workplace assaults. Local 111 is working with the employer in Metro Vancouver to implement a trial period with a safety shield between drivers and passengers, combined with a violent incident prevention program to identify potentially volatile situations and strategies to defuse them.
Bob Kinnear, president of Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents over 10,000 transit workers in Toronto and York Region, was also pleased that Parliament had passed the bill unanimously. Kinnear, who said that there are hundreds of assaults every year against Toronto Transit Commission workers, noted that it took the union more than 10 years of efforts to get the bill passed.
Operators have been spat on, threatened and have had coffee and other liquids thrown at them. “Our members have been punched, slapped, kicked, strangled, stabbed and shot at, usually over a fare dispute,” Kinnear said. “We have had cases where bus drivers have been dragged out of their seats and viciously beaten, just for doing their jobs. Several of our members have been hurt so badly that they cannot return to work and are forced to live the rest of their lives on inadequate workers’ compensation payments. If there’s such a thing as injustice, this is it.”
Kinnear added that while the union welcomed the legislation, he did not understand why employees who do not operate vehicles, such as station collectors, were not covered. “Collectors have been threatened with guns and even shot and wounded,” he said. “We put ourselves out there to perform a public service, and we deserve to be better protected on the job.”