Bob Sass was born in 1937 in the Bronx, New York, and graduated from Cornell University in 1967 with a Masters degree in Science. He came to Saskatchewan in 1969 as an Associate Professor of Administration at the Regina campus of the University of Saskatchewan. He joined the Saskatchewan Department of Labour as a Labour Consultant and Chief Conciliation Officer. This complemented his earlier experience as an organizer, international representative, and negotiator for municipal employees and as the education and research director for Local 91 of the International Ladies Garment Workers in New York. In Saskatchewan, Sass was quickly promoted to Assistant Deputy Minister, then in 1974 to Associate Deputy Minister of Labour, with responsibility for Occupational Health and Safety. He immediately helped bring in some of the first regulations to protect asbestos workers, and proceeded to overhaul the province’s Health and Safety legislation. Sass pleaded for proper labeling of industrial products, noting that “chemicals are coming into the workforce by the hundreds and thousands each year.” He urged the federal government to take on the disclosure battle with big business—something provinces could not do alone.
Bob Sass’s criticism of federal legislation did lead to improved labeling. In Saskatchewan, he helped draft 1981 regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act that instituted a process for obtaining information on hazardous chemicals. Employers were required to provide to employees a list with products clearly labeled and emergency procedures noted in the event of leaks or spills. By 1988, all of this contributed to a Canada-wide federal/provincial agreement establishing a uniform system of identifying and labeling hazardous substances under the Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS). Today, Bob Sass continues to urge Canadians to go beyond the current boundaries of traditional bureaucracy and labour laws. He wants them to capture broader meaning and morality in connecting work to everyday life, and emphasizes the link between a healthy family life and a humane work place. He envisions establishing a Workers’ Environment Board in workplaces such as he chaired for the potash mines in the late 1970s, when the mines were still under public ownership. Workers, being in the majority, would be able to address matters such as pace of work, how jobs are designed, and how work is organized.