Royal Ottawa — prosecutions fly below the radar

The Ministry of Labour inspectors have significant powers when it comes to enforcing the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

What’s difficult to discern is where the dividing line is between issuing orders and prosecuting an employer for violations of the Act.

After months of investigation into seven complaints and 77 incidents at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences, in May the Ministry issued 15 orders to address issue around workplace violence.

Given how big the investigation was, how many incidents had taken place, and how many workers were interviewed, we were stunned that no charges were laid. By contrast, Ontario Shores was separately prosecuted and fined $37,500 for an incident around a worker injured cleaning and replacing a ventilation hood.

Last week we got word by a very convoluted route that the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre was facing prosecution on three counts stemming from a single incident of workplace violence in June 2012.

The hospital will be going to court in December to defend itself on charges that it failed to maintain required measures and procedures for summoning immediate assistance when workplace violence occurred; that it failed to provide information, instruction and supervision to a worker; and that it failed to take every reasonable precaution to protect a worker.

The incident didn’t involve OPSEU members at the hospital, but it was remarkable to learn that none of the three unions present in the workplace were informed that charges had been laid as far back as July. Last week it was clear there were members of the hospital’s management team that were also unaware of the prosecution.

There is a long history of information sharing between management and worker representatives who serve on the workplace Joint Health and Safety Committees. It’s not just tradition but the law. The OHSA requires employers to share reports with the JHSC particularly as they emerge from assessments by the Ministry of Labour’s inspectors.

The fines for each prosecution can be substantial – up to $25,000 for an individual and $500,000 for a corporation.

While the outcomes are public information, the Ministry of Labour only chooses to post online the results of prosecutions that result in a fine of $50,000 or more.

If prosecutions are taking place you would think the information would not only be shared with the worker representatives who have a stake in the outcome, but also with the broader community to act as a deterrent. If employers knew that the Ministry of Labour is serious about prosecuting, they might be inclined to step up their compliance with the Act. That includes disclosure of smaller fines that might be inclined to fly below the radar.

We are pleased to see the Ministry of Labour is stepping up its prosecutions on this issue as it grows in importance for health care workers. Given this prosecution took place a little over a month after our expressed disappointment over the Ontario Shores decision, we can only speculate over whether the Ministry had taken note. We hope they did.

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