Province axes workplace safety committee, affected groups raise concerns
Pallister government dissolved the committee after a 'value-for-money' review of boards
Among the dozen boards getting axed by the provincial government is a committee members say is vital to improving workers' safety.
The 13 members of the Minister's Advisory Council on Workplace Safety and Health were served notice last week that the council would be eliminated as part of an omnibus bill introduced last week to streamline government operations.
The council included representatives from employers and labour. It was required every five years to undertake a review of Manitoba's Workplace Safety and Health Act and report its findings and recommendations to the minister.
Four of the members of the council were appointed by the Manitoba Employers Council. Its chair, William Gardner, said he will wait to see if government continues to consult with employers and labour moving forward.
But added, he is "hard-pressed to see a better way of doing it" than the current council.
"It was a particularly effective way of conducting meaningful consultation between government and stakeholders. It was a representative body." he said.
"There was never a problem knowing you had the right people (and) because it was made up of volunteers, the expense to government was minimal."
The council was in the midst of the mandated five-year review this month when its members were sent a letter informing them that in "keeping with our government's commitment to ensuring value for money" the council was being eliminated.
The members will still be required to complete the review and its recommendation are due to government on Dec. 31, which made the timing surprising, said council member Blaine Duncan.
"The council has been working diligently for the past six months, getting submissions from interested parties and discussing and debating legislative changes and administration of the law. So it came at an interesting time," he said.
The move to dissolve the board as a standing committee will be a "detriment" to the process of updating health and safety legislation, he said.
"Without that oversight, I believe that the legislation will fall behind," Duncan said, who works for the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union and is one of four representatives of labour on the council.
Median fines below national numbers
A recent CBC News investigation revealed that not a single Manitoba company has been charged with criminal negligence for safety violations after a worker's death on the job, and provincial fines fall well short of the national median penalty.
Manitoba's median fine after a fatality is $78,000 in the seven years of data the CBC gathered from the province's listing of workplace health and safety convictions. That's well below the national median of $97,500 for the 250 cases of workplace fatalities on which a CBC News investigation received information.
When CBC News approached the government earlier this year to comment on the topic, then-growth enterprise and trade minister Cliff Cullen said changes to legislation would depend on the council's recommendation.
"It is their job to do the assessment and to do the research and we will look forward to the report," he said in May.
'Duplicated' work of other committees
The bill introduced last week was touted as a way to modernize government by reducing 170 board appointments. Twenty-five boards were either eliminated, reduced in size or merged, bringing in about $150,000 savings annually in per diems.
Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Blaine Pedersen, whose ministerial responsibilities included workplace safety, told CBC News the council "duplicated" the efforts of work done by other groups such as Safe Work Manitoba.
Safe Work Manitoba works primarily on the prevention side of workplace safety and has not "historically had a view or a role in legislation," according to a spokesperson for the public agency.
The legislation will still be reviewed by a "similar" committee in five years, said Pedersen.
"This is important to make sure we are meeting the five-year goals … measurements to see where you have been," Pedersen told CBC News.
"Change is always difficult and people get comfortable in their committees and I would never underestimate the job that has been done before, but change is difficult and people get into a routine."
Pedersen admitted he hadn't looked over the minutes to see what the council had accomplished over the year, but said his government's priority is prevention.
"We know our accident rate has come down significantly in Manitoba in the last number of years. But you don't rest on that because you always want to prevent accidents. So that is what we have looked at," said Pedersen
Gardner is concerned that another group, reconvened in five years, will not have the same experience or congeniality the council had developed as a committee over the last decade.
"People got to know each other and it enhanced the development of collegial relations and allowed the committee in many cases to reach consensus," he said.
In between the five-year reviews, the council would also look at health and safety regulations that could be changed in the interim and would make recommendations to the minister, he said.
"Issues do come up and you don't want them to fester for five years," he said.