Is this a good idea? A Canadian province is about to enact a new workplace safety law that would allow inspectors to issue fines to workers for violations. Penalties could be substantial for repeat offenders.
Starting Jan. 1, 2014, the province of Alberta will allow its Occupational Health and Safety Officers (inspectors) to ticket workers on the spot for violating OHS regulations. The tickets would be from $100 to $500, with most either $100 or $200. The Officers can also issue similar immediate tickets to the employer.
For example, an OHS Officer can fine a worker who:
- fails to have a valid entry permit for confined space ($100)
- doesn’t wear required visible clothing when exposed to traffic ($200)
- fails to use/wear fall protection system required by employer ($200)
- smokes where a flammable substance is present ($200)
- smokes within 8 meters (26.25 feet) of a vehicle with explosives ($500)
- rides on a material hoist ($100)
- works from the top two rungs/steps/cleats of a portable ladder ($200)
- fails to use seat belts or other safety equipment when operating powered mobile equipment ($200), and
- fails to use a provided sharps container ($100).
Just like a traffic ticket, a worker could plead not guilty to the charge and appeal it in court.
Tougher repeat penalties
As of Oct. 1, Alberta OHS can also issue administrative penalties of up to $10,000 per violation per day to employers, prime contractors, suppliers, contractors and workers for “chronic disregard for health and safety in the workplace.”
The amount of the penalty will depend on several factors, including but not limited to:
- past health and safety performance
- frequency of orders, tickets or other compliance interventions, and
- whether there appears to be an overall commitment to maintaining proper health and safety systems in the workplace.
Administrative penalties can be appealed to Alberta’s OHS Council.
This is the first time Alberta OHS law allowed the agency to issue monetary penalties. Before the tickets and administrative penalties were put in place, OHS Officers had only the following compliance options available:
- Immediate Verbal Compliance: When an employer is able to comply immediately, an Officer may issue a verbal compliance directive, ensuring corrective action has been taken before the Officer leaves the work site.
- Compliance Order: A written order from the Officer requires compliance by a specific date.
- Stop Use Order: When equipment itself or use of equipment is found to be unsafe, the Officer can issue a written order and attach a stop use tag on the piece of equipment.
- Stop Work Order: When work is being carried out in an unsafe or unhealthy manner, the Officer may issue a Stop Work Order which will also identify the measures necessary to remove the source of danger and resume work.
- Management Meeting: When an Officer is having difficulty ensuring an employer achieves compliance with an order within a reasonable time period or an employer ignores a stop order, a meeting can be held to review the penalties for non-compliance with the employer.
- Prosecution: The case is turned over to Alberta Justice for criminal prosecution.
It should be noted that Alberta law gives the OHS Officer the discretion to determine the appropriate action. The above description acts only as a guideline.
An Alberta Occupational Health and Safety spokesman is quoted as saying the agency needed “something that was more severe than an order to comply, but less severe than prosecution.” The lack of tickets and administrative fines was called “a gap on the enforcement spectrum.”
The addition of these penalties brings Alberta into closer accord with workplace safety penalties in other Canadian provinces.
Alberta may have been in serious need of a revamp of its OHS enforcement system.
In the first half of 2013, workplace fatalities shot up 18% from the same time the previous year.
And if the rate of fatalities in early 2013 continues the rest of the year, the province may be on track for having the most work deaths in any single year.
Alberta had 104 workers die in the first half of this year: 54 from occupational disease, 22 in motor vehicle crashes and 28 from workplace incidents. In 2012, the province had 145 deaths. The highest in any given year was 169 in 1982.
If that rate of work fatalities continues, Alberta could see 200 workplace deaths this year.
An Alberta OHS spokesman attributes the jump in worker deaths to the increased population in the province.
But the Alberta Federal of Labour (AFL) doesn’t buy that reasoning and instead blames a lack of inspectors and lax enforcement of workplace safety rules.
Is fining employees a good idea?
The AFL also doesn’t like the idea of issuing tickets to workers for safety violations. It says that would take the onus for workplace safety off of employers and put more blame on employees.
The press secretary for Alberta’s Human Services Minister said the government believes workplace safety is a responsibility shared by employers and employees. An editorial in the Calgary Herald echoed that sentiment and supported the new plan.
Fining workers — along with employers — for safety violations has been something that’s been called for in the U.S. as well. You can find people advocating for that idea in the comments after articles on this website.
As the above description shows, Alberta’s occupational safety enforcement system has significant differences from U.S. OSHA.
OSHA can issue fines up to $70,000 per violation. Alberta’s are capped at $10,000, but they can accumulate per day. For particularly egregious violations, OSHA’s can accumulate per employee but not per day.
Alberta’s system also seems to give employers more second chances before significant action is taken against them. Of course, the upcoming administrative penalties would permit potentially serious financial consequences for repeat offenders, both employers and employees.
Despite those differences, Canada is the U.S.’s largest trading partner. That alone suggests fining workers for safety violations in certain situations is something that should at least be studied in the U.S.
What do you think? Should the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act be amended to enable OSHA inspectors to give fines to employees? What do you think about other parts of Alberta’s workplace safety program, such as the ability of inspectors to give on-the-spot tickets … something OSHA inspectors can’t do? Let us know what you think in the comments below.