Occupational Health and Safety Legislation

Saskatchewan was the first province to introduce broadly based occupational health and safety legislation. Canadian government investigations of workers' health and safety date back to the 1880s, including an 1889 Royal Commission that documented widespread unhealthy working conditions, rampant disease, exploitation of child labour, and a lack of compensation to workers injured in industrial and agricultural work. Yet by the turn of the century the federal government still offered little in the way of legislation, hiding behind Factory Acts and federal-provincial jurisdictional issues. By the 1940s, provincial health departments, including an occupational component in the Saskatchewan Department of Public Health, provided workplace safety information and encouraged the training of occupational health professionals. Other early Saskatchewan efforts included developing through the Workmen's Compensation Board guidelines on accident prevention that became enforceable through regulation in 1959.

As part of the 1971 “New Deal for People,” the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party promised health and safety as a fundamental right of workers as a logical extension of medicare. Legislation established a Provincial Occupational Health Council and specified the establishment of joint labour-management Occupational Health Committees in workplaces with ten or more employees. In 1975, the Act was further strengthened, specifying duties of employers and workers, and ratifying important asbestos regulations. By 1977, earlier legislation including the Mines Regulations Act was repealed in favour of integrated legislation based on the experiences of the first five years. The department's regulatory powers were enhanced and codes of practice established, prohibiting discrimination against members of Occupational Health and Safety Committees and strengthening the right to refuse “unusually dangerous work.” Workers could now receive medical examinations and be assigned temporary alternative work without loss of pay when exposed to harmful substances. A system of fines was established including up to two years in prison for conviction of a serious offense.

Of lasting significance was the gradual development of a system of rights under the leadership of Associate Deputy Minister Bob Sass. These rights have been identified as the “right to know,” the “right to participate,” and the “right to refuse.” The legislation of the 1970s reflected a belief that workplace accidents and disease could be eliminated, and that workers were key to finding and implementing the solutions. The legislation encouraged a broadly based regulatory system, and subsequent regulations proclaimed between 1981 and 2004 covered a range of workplace issues, from notification regarding occupational diseases, dangerous working conditions and accidents to first aid and emergency arrangements and mining protocols.

Innovations related to workplace violence and harassment were introduced in 1993, including the designation of a worker representative in workplaces with between four and ten employees as well as legislation to clarify owner, contractor and supplier responsibility for work place safety. Legislation identified harassment as a health and safety issue. Saskatchewan is the only province in Canada that includes “harassment” in occupational health and safety legislation. Women's groups welcomed the legislation as an effective way of addressing sexual harassment, and generally appreciated its preventative components as a route preferable to the lengthy process under Human Rights Legislation.

Regulations now cover most workplaces from construction sites to forestry and mill operations, to health-care facilities. They prescribe use of video display terminals (under the Radiation Health and Safety Act). Recent regulations on smoke-free workplaces include amendments to the Tobacco Control Act in 2004. Despite comprehensive occupational health and safety legislation, true health and safety remains elusive in Saskatchewan. April 28 is a national day of mourning in Canada for workers killed and injured on the job. Of the 953 Canadians who lost their lives in 2003 through workplace accidents, 28 were in Saskatchewan.

Merran Proctor