NS Minister of Labour justifies higher occupational health and safety fines

June 2011
The Honourable Marilyn More, Minister of Labour and Advanced Education in Nova Scotia has moved to the second reading of Bill No. 25, an Act to Amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The following is an abbreviated transcript.

“Across Canada, maximum fines range from a low of $15,000 in Quebec, where they use graduated fines, to $1 million under the Canada Labour Code and in Alberta. The highest fine in Canada is in British Columbia for a second offence and it is $1,238,000. Some provinces add jail time as a potential penalty. In Nova Scotia, one can serve up to two years in prison for violating the Occupational Health and Safety Act. To date, no one has been incarcerated for breaking the Occupational and Health and Safety Act.

Last Fall, in an interview with the CBC that touched on fines, Norma Lee MacLeod asked a question that I found very difficult. Essentially, is a Nova Scotia life worth less than those in other jurisdictions? Absolutely not. Every life is a gift and every death is a loss. No one is worth more than another. I defy anyone to put a price tag on a life. Fines cannot bring back or replace a loved one who dies at work. Obviously, larger fines could have an impact on the business community. We have taken that into consideration, but at the same time, fines cannot occur unless someone has been injured or killed in the workplace. Such an incident would have several impacts on a business – down time, loss of expert staff, declining morale, loss of client goodwill, et cetera. Then of course there are the legal bills. An investment in safety pays greater dividends, I believe, than all of the potential costs associated with a serious workplace injury. Increasing fines will only make that more true.

Bill No. 25 proposes that the fines remain at $250,000 for a first offence and increase to $500,000 for any additional offence that occurs within five years of the first offence. The maximum fine for any offence involving a workplace death, as I mentioned earlier, would be $500,000. This would put us in line with other Canadian jurisdictions. Judges may continue to use creative sentencing in their decisions. Under creative sentencing, a judge can order a guilty party to contribute to an organization that supports injured workers or their families, or to perform community service intended to increase workplace health and safety. Penalties imposed under creative sentencing would be additional to the maximum fine under the proposed amendments.

Now, there are some who may suggest that increasing fines would put too much financial burden on employers. That line of thought does not take into account the financial impact of workplace injuries for employers – finding replacement staff, training those workers, down time while the machinery is out of service for inspection and repair, legal fees associated with the prosecutions and such. Nor does it take into account the psychological and emotional impact that a workplace injury has on a firm’s other workers, its clients and the community.

Employers can avoid those costs and fines by maintaining a safe workplace. Employers can avoid lost wages, pain and suffering, or worse, by maintaining a safe workplace. Families would be spared the agony and heartache associated with seeing a loved one killed or incapacitated.

I also heard a comment that the government should not be balancing the books on the backs of injured workers. Now, that comment surprised me on a few levels.

Firstly, the injured party is not the party being fined. Charges are laid and upon conviction, fines are imposed on the people and/or businesses that failed to live up to their responsibilities to establish and maintain a safe and healthy workplace.

Secondly, it sounds to me as though someone believes we look forward to receiving revenue from Occupational Health and Safety fines and nothing could be further from the truth. Every member of our government would be pleased, no, we would be thrilled, to see a decrease in revenue with regard to health and safety fines.

Our department is often asked why we don’t charge offenders under the Criminal Code of Canada. After all, the ability to do so came in response to a recommendation in the Westray inquiry report. Our response is pragmatic. The Criminal Code of Canada demands that we prove the offender acted with intent, that they wilfully disregarded the law in order to save money, realize a greater profit et cetera.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, we need to prove that the offence occurred, rather than to prove that the offender acted with intent. It is easier to get a conviction under the provincial law. I, for one, would prefer to see a conviction under the provincial law, rather than a not guilty verdict on the federal Statute.

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