New Alberta law will improve worker safety 

“The legislation is a significant step towards improving workplaces. Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA/NUPGE) and the labour movement have been fighting for changes like these for many years. This is a day to celebrate.”  Trudy Thomson, HSAA Vice-President 

Edmonton (08 Dec. 2017) —The government of Alberta has introduced sweeping new legislation designed to expand worker rights and employer duties.
The proposed changes in Bill 30 — An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans — stem from the first major government review of the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS Act) since it was enacted in 1976.

For many years, the Alberta labour movement has demanded many of the changes set to become law, including stronger language that enshrines 3 basic rights of workers: the right to refuse unsafe work, the right to know, and right to participate.

“The legislation is a significant step towards improving workplaces. HSAA/NUPGE and the labour movement have been fighting for changes like these for many years. This is a day to celebrate,” said Trudy Thomson, Vice-President of Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA/NUPGE), which represents about 25,000 health care professionals in Alberta.

Presumptive coverage for paramedics 

Of particular concern to HSAA/NUPGE is the provision of presumptive coverage by the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) for paramedics who experience a heart attack during or after the completion of their shift. Presumptive coverage means that the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is assumed to have been the result of workplace trauma, thereby removing the onus on workers to prove that the PTSD was the direct result of some specific work-related events.

Thomson explained that, “this brings paramedics in line with other first responders, who have long had this coverage. HSAA/NUPGE's fight to get this took on a new urgency after the passing of paramedic Dave Sartorelli from cardiac arrest less than 4 hours after his shift ended in 2014. Our thoughts are with Dave’s family."

Enhanced worker empowerment and protection

While the improved protections in the Occupational Health and Safety Act and WCB legislation are unprecedented in Alberta, they simply bring the province in line with rules that already exist in other Canadian jurisdictions. For example, Alberta is the only province without mandatory joint health and safety committees or representatives. Joint committees are only required when designated by the Minister of Labour.

Bill 30 will change this, requiring employers to establish a mandatory joint worker-employer worksite health and safety committee at workplaces employing 20 or more workers, or to establish a worker-appointed representative in workplaces with 5 to 19 workers. There are also provisions against employers retaliating against workers who speak out on safety issues.

Bullying and harassment will be also be covered under legislation for the first time.

This proposed legislation also spells out the duties of the committee or representative, including workplace inspections and the development of education programs.

WCB changes

The WCB changes include clarifying that the overall goal of WCB is to accommodate injured workers. Accommodation means increasing payments to injured workers to more closely reflect their incomes before they were hurt, so to reduce financial hardship. The legislation will make death benefits more equitable and consistent with obligations in the Charter of Rights; and, it will extend the process and timelines for appeals.

Right to refuse

The amendments will also enshrine into Alberta law the right for workers to refuse dangerous work, which is currently defined as a duty to refuse. This proposed change from a worker duty to a worker right will shift the onus onto employers for safer and healthier work.

“By creating a right to refuse, we are essentially making it so that the employer becomes more responsible,” explained Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray at a news conference introducing Bill 30.

The new law will also add a requirement for employers to continue to pay the refusing worker while an investigation is underway and also when a health and safety officer issues a stop work order.

Employers will also have expanded duties to report workplace injuries and near miss incidents, which is an important leading indicator helping employers to meet their obligations in identifying workplace hazards.  
Changes will also strengthen protections related to causing or participating in workplace violence and harassment, including domestic or sexual violence.

The new law will also require employers to adequately train workers to protect their health and safety before beginning work, performing new work, using any new equipment, or moving to another work area.

Broadening workers’ compensation coverage

Bill 30 will also broaden coverage, including the resolving of cases in favour of the worker where the “evidence in support of the opposite sides of an issue related to a claim for compensation is approximately equal.”
Further improvements will see an increase in time a worker has to appeal a decision from 1 year to 2 years, increase the benefit for dependents in fatality cases, and enhance benefit rights for young workers, learners and apprentices.
Bill 30 will also establish a Fair Practices Office to offer independent advice, assistance and advocacy services to employers and to workers and their dependants to help navigate the compensation system.

Mandatory OHS legislative reviews

This new law will also mandate occupational health and safety reviews at least once every 5 years, and the review committee would require equal representation of employers, workers and the public.

“It is refreshing that this government has listened to working Albertans. While we didn’t get all the changes we wanted, these changes are a fundamental step in the right direction. HSAA/NUPGE is committed to continue advocating for further improvement,” Thomson concluded.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 370,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE