Alberta bill aims to bring structure, simplicity to OHS
By Jack Burton
Amendments to legislation mark attempt to offer clarity, accessibility, adaptability to employers
OHS professionals have endured their share of significant change over the last two years, with more shifts arriving in Alberta at the end of last year through Bill 47 — the Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, 2020.
The act, which went into effect on Dec. 1, 2021, presents a series of amendments to pre-existing health and safety legislation, with the goal of offering workplaces and OHS professionals across the province’s varied industries more clarity and structure in managing workplace safety, especially during a time when those qualities are more valued than ever.
Making safety simple
Joseph Dow, press secretary for the Alberta government’s labour and immigration department in Edmonton, described the major overall change to OHS legislation as “streamlining and simplifying technical rules and requirements, and moving them from the OHS Act and OHS Regulation into the OHS Code.”
The impact of these refinements, said Dow, is a provincial OHS Act that’s “shorter, less prescriptive and easier to understand. Plus, most of the technical rules and requirements are in one place, which makes them easier to find and apply for job creators and workers.”
This update and consolidation of many overlooked or outdated safety guidelines benefits numerous industries, he said, including mining sites, where rules were previously spread across Alberta’s OHS Act, OHS Regulation and OHS Code, along with radiation safety laws, which were not only unclear, but more than three decades out of date.
“Radiation equipment safety laws had not been significantly revised for 35 years, and often duplicated or did not align with other workplace health and safety legislation,” Dow explained. “Along with this update, radiation rules required a similar refinement to mining standards and now exists in a single, consistent piece of legislation.”
Prioritizing the changing needs of safety
The on-site implications of these new amendments are the emergence of a province-wide safety standard that is more dynamic and industry-specific, said Dow, giving employers more control in defining safety according to, not only the needs of their individual work environments, but also the quickly evolving standards of occupational safety.
By giving employers “rules that are more flexible and easier to understand, job creators and workers now have more ability to adapt to changing health and safety trends and issues particular to their industries,” he said.
The adaptability that the bill adds to OHS also extends beyond the workplace, with the consolidation brought on by these amendments allowing for further updates and refinements to be made with ease on a legislative level.
“From a policy perspective, consolidating requirements into the OHS Code makes them easier to change and update because the code is a regulation,” said Dow. “This ensures that rules can stay current with best practices and changing trends, such as advances in technology and new protective equipment.”
In allowing for more efficient and needs-based applications of safety standards across Alberta’s varied industries, Dow believes that the dynamic nature of these new amendments lets employers achieve a new level of prioritizing the safety of their work environments and those within them.
“Workplace health and safety is in everyone’s interest,” he said. “By making OHS laws easier to understand and follow, we can improve workplace health and safety and ensure every person returns home safely and healthy at the end of each workday.”
“For too long, these laws were often viewed as to-do lists. Alberta’s government changed that by listening to job creators and workers.”
Out with the old…
The demands of job creators and workers that Bill 47 sought to address were largely in reaction to previous OHS legislation implemented several years ago by Alberta’s former NDP government, explained Loretta Bouwmeester, partner at Mathews Dinsdale & Clark, an occupational health and safety-focused law firm based in Calgary.
“Candidly, there was so much feedback received by the government in response to the NDP changes,” she said. “It was such a hot topic that it needed to be addressed from a constituency perspective, and a number of industry associations had proactively provided feedback and submissions on needed changes.”
The majority of this feedback concerned what was perceived as sudden and sometimes unclear changes introduced by the prior government, Bouwmeester said.
“The concern was that the pendulum had swung abruptly, and in a way that made things difficult.”
Previous legislation was focused on achieving safe processes over safe outcomes, which caused confusion and frustration due to what some believed was limiting and unclear definitions regarding an organization’s roles and responsibilities in managing the safety of their workplace.
With Bill 47, Bouwmeester said, “this government wanted to see safe outcomes, and didn’t want to bind the hands of an employer so that they were more process focused than outcome focused. It’s the outcome that matters, though, and that outcome is safe workplaces.”
Evolving toward clearer responsibilities
By introducing more clearly defined roles and adaptability into Alberta’s workplace safety policies, the Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act serves what Bouwmeester described as a “continued, balanced evolution” from prior legislation.
One manner in which the legislation has evolved is by offering a new clarity when defining internal responsibility systems and the organizational roles played in efficiently achieving workplace safety.
“Enabling innovation has been a big focus of this government, and they saw changing this legislation as a means of both achieving health and safety outcomes through performance-based approaches, but also providing better clarity on each of the party’s responsibilities while still being economically viable,” she said.
The new model of occupational safety expectations and organizational roles presented by Bill 47 removes some of the responsibilities held by employees in supervisor roles when it comes to maintaining health and safety, and places more onus on the employer to see that conditions are met.
“What the new legislation makes clear is that the employer is responsible for work-related safety issues. The old legislation, with that really broad definition, blurred the boundaries,” said Bouwmeester. “This is an important (change), because this created so much angst for supervisors.”
A return to employer accountability
Frustration arose from the prior legislation’s creation of “an independent obligation on supervisors to ensure their own competency,” Bouwmeester said.
“If their employer wasn’t providing the tools, arguably they had to do it themselves, where now, the responsibility is more squarely with their employer.”
Returning to a system where supervisor competency is once again an employer responsibility means that it is on organizations to ensure “that their supervisors are competent to carry out their duties, and if the supervisor is not competent, that can have a blowback effect on the employer,” rather than solely the employee, according to Bouwmeester.
The increased safety responsibility of employers does not mean employees have any less of a say regarding the safety of their workplace, however.
Bouwmeester remarked that “a main, big change is that OHS officers can issue orders, and if they have to get a court order to enforce it because an employer is not complying, the court can now order costs against that employer, so the employer has to pay for OHS to make them comply.”
“Essentially, if you’re offside, the consequence is now bigger.”
Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.