A British Columbia Supreme Court judge has concluded the province's workplace-safety laws are too vague in a decision union leaders say threatens to undermine B.C.'s entire regulatory regime.
Justice George Macintosh tossed out allegations on Friday that an asbestos-removal contractor and his son disobeyed a 2012 court order to comply with the Workers Compensation Act, saying the law is too complex and difficult to understand.
"If the court is to punish anyone for not carrying out its orders, the order must in unambiguous terms direct what is to be done," Macintosh said.
"Even if every word of the act or the regulation (were) contained in the order, it would still be impossible in my view for the respondents to know when they went to work each day whether their work put them ... in contempt of this court."
237 violation notices issued
The 2012 order was directed at Seattle Environmental Consulting Ltd., owner Mike Singh and his son Shawn Singh.
Between 2007 and 2012, WorkSafeBC issued 237 violation notices to the company and two men. It also imposed fines in excess of $200,000.
Those breaches included failing to correctly identify asbestos during building surveys, neglecting to put up warning signs and leaving potentially contaminated drywall debris uncovered on countertops and carpets.
Macintosh's ruling also dismissed the Singhs' application that the 2012 order be set aside, despite finding it "overly broad and unclear."
Mike Singh said he was happy with the decision but that he would appeal Macintosh's decision upholding the court order.
"I want to make it clear ... we do not expose people to asbestos, period," Singh said.
Lee Loftus of the B.C. Insulators Union described the judgment as "ludicrous."
"This is just right off the wall for me," Loftus said outside the courthouse.
"Here we have an employer that has hundreds of violations of the regulations that he has been documented with and served with. He knows what the law is. He knows what the regulation is. And the judge has ignored that."
Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said the notion that a company with expertise in asbestos removal wouldn't understand the laws governing its industry is "nonsense."
"We will be urging (the Workers Compensation Board) to appeal," she said.
WorkSafeBC spokeswoman Trish Chernecki said the agency will review the ruling in detail and consider its legal options, including filing an appeal.
The head of the Hazardous Materials Association, Don Whyte, said he was shocked by what he called "the wrong decision."
"They teach me in elementary school that ignorance of the law is no excuse," Whyte said. "Now we have a judgment that is telling us that if the law is too complex you don't have to follow it."
This ruling will call into question the entire regulatory regime governed by the Workers Compensation Act, he added.