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Workplace Health and Safety Inspections are on the Rise

As Ontario continues to find its way through the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Labour announced it would be hiring 98 additional health and safety inspectors to ensure businesses are following public health guidelines on COVID-19 workplace safety. The number of inspectors will increase from 409 to 507 across the province and will support the increase in calls the Ministry is receiving about COVID-19 compliance. Since March 11, 2020, health and safety inspectors have conducted over 19,000 inspections related to COVID-19 and issued more than 16,000 orders.

The role of health and safety inspectors I sto ensure workplaces are compliant with the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”). Under the OHSA, employers are required to take all reasonable precautions for the health and safety of their employees under Ontario’s labour laws. This means protecting workers from hazards in the workplace, including infectious diseases. In relation to COVID-19, inspectors have the power to:

  • inspect any workplace and make sure it has protections in place for its employees to prevent exposure to COVID-19;
  • investigate any potentially hazardous situation, critical injury, fatality and work refusal;
  • order compliance with the OHSA;
  • issue fines and/or stop work orders and shut down a workplace in case of an OHSA violation; and
  • recommend and initiate prosecutions.

COVID-19 compliance issues that inspectors will investigate include the measures and procedures a workplace has implemented to manage COVID-19 exposure and transmission, such as mandatory screening, hand hygiene, maintaining physical distancing and more. Common compliance issues found are lack of personal protective equipment, lack of physical distancing, unsanitary conditions, and not taking other proper COVID-19 precautions.

Proactive and Reactive Audits

While employers have recently had to shift their focus to implementing COVID-19 measures, employers should ensure they continue to safeguard against other workplace safety risks. Proactive, unannounced workplace inspections will still occur, for both COVID and non-COVID-related health and safety concerns, and the Ministry will now have more inspectors to conduct them. Every year, the Ministry of Labour schedules compliance initiatives in specific sectors. The schedule does not provide the names of specific workplaces that will inspected, but instead lists the general sectors of compliance focus. The compliance focus is then rolled out in two phases. Phase 1 focuses on education, outreach and awareness, as the Ministry provides resource tools, training and education on the initiative and health and safety requirements.  Phase 2 consists of inspection blitzes where inspectors conduct field visits to check that workplaces are complying with the OHSA. In the second half of 2020, for example, the Ministry focused on workplace violence in the healthcare sector, with Phase 1 beginning on June 1, 2020 and Phase 2 occurring between September 2, 2020 and February 1, 2021.

Steps to take

Employers need to proactively assess their workplaces to determine what they need to do to protect the health and safety of their workers, including but not only in relation to COVID-19 precautions. Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • Does your business have the appropriate mandated signage posted regarding worker’s rights under the OHSA and the ESA?
  • Are Ministry mandated COVID safety measures properly implemented?
  • Are your injury and illness records complete?
  • Do you have documentation ready to support that equipment has passed inspections?
  • How are you monitoring compliance by employees?