Ontario labour groups and NDP push for stronger heat stress protections amid rising climate-driven temperatures

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Michael Lewis

Special to Ontario Construction News

The Ontario Federation of Labour and the opposition New Democrats are pressing the Ford government for better protections for workers from heat stress as Ontario faces more climate change-driven extreme heat events.

The OFL, which represents 54 unions and one million workers across the province, has launched a heat stress campaign based on a legislative petition that will be circulated in Ontario workplaces and communities in the coming months, with the goal of winning “meaningful” heat stress legislation in the fall.

The OFL is also repeating its call for heat stress to be identified as a workplace hazard in the Occupational Health and Safety Act while the NDP’s climate critic Peter Tabuns says he will introduce a motion in the Legislature to address the issue in Ontario workplaces.

“We need heat stress legislation for everyone in Ontario, not just workers,” said OFL president Laura Walton. “From sweltering and overcrowded classrooms to poorly ventilated and overheated long-term care rooms, from the stuffy and stifling shop floor to the scorching sun of an outdoor job site–the heat is a hazard that many workers simply cannot escape.”

“Ontario’s summers are getting hotter and hotter, leading to unsafe work conditions for many workers in our province,” Tabuns added.

The campaign comes as the province appears to have abandoned a proposal to strengthen workers’ protections from extreme heat in the face of industry objections over added administrative costs.

Ontario’s proposed new heat stress regulation under the OHSA was announced last August and followed by a 30-day public consultation. The Ministry of Labour conducted a “regulatory impact analysis” of anticipated costs and benefits of implementing the regulations, which if adopted could have been in place by this summer.

No policy action has occurred in the months since and as a regulatory rather than legislative proposal, the PC government has the option of simply not acting.

Ministry of Labour spokesperson Anuradha Dhar did not respond specifically to questions about the status of the proposed regulation but said the ministry “continues to review stakeholder feedback to identify potential future updates.”

She pointed to provisions in the OHSA that state that employers and supervisors have a duty to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker including protection in hot environments.

Additionally, every worker in Ontario has the right to refuse work they believe to be unsafe, and anyone can report health and safety concerns to the ministry.

She added that employers should establish a heat stress control plan for the summer to manage job tasks in high temperatures and humidity — and said the ministry has provided funding to Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc. to develop a heat stress toolkit to help employers address the heat conditions in their workplaces.

“Our expectation is that the ministry has actually listened to the industry’s position on this,” said Steven Crombie, senior director of public affairs at the Ontario Road Builders’ Association, which represents more than 280 member companies and 56,000 workers.

“Our concern was the administrative burden on contractors to effectively implement … in addition to challenges in terms of the ministry’s ability to enforce the regulation.

“We also felt that this regulation was potentially redundant” in that the OHSA under clause 25(2) (h) states that employers have a “general duty” to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers.

Crombie said the new heat stress regulation would have required contractors to employ a health and safety professional to perform “a very complicated calculation” at the onset of each workday to measure potential heat hazards and adjust work schedules and activities accordingly.

He said the requirement would have added “a tremendous amount of cost to deliver infrastructure in Ontario,” adding that anyone from a site supervisor to a labourer “can tell you if it’s too hot to work. If companies are pressuring people to work in uncomfortable situations, they are probably just going to go and work somewhere else.”

The heat stress proposal applied to both indoor and outdoor work and included the introduction of heat stress exposure limits and required employers to identify and implement control measures and procedures to control the exposure.

It would have also required employers to provide worker information and instruction on recognizing the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and on protection measures. The OFL in its submission on the government’s proposal called it “not sufficient, accessible, nor protective enough.”

In announcing the proposal, the province said extreme heat events due to changes in climate are a growing health risk to workers in Ontario and a “significant cause of occupational illnesses that may also lead to death.”

Based on Workplace Safety and Insurance Board statistics, it said there were 350 lost time claims for heat exhaustion for construction workers alone between 2006 and 2015.

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