Ottawa

Number of federal inspectors cut in half over a decade, groups say

The number of federal health and safety officers has been nearly cut in half over the last decade, which means fewer inspections are being done, according to a union for civil servants and a federal think tank.

Inspector pool down to 80 from 150 in 2005, according to Public Service Alliance of Canada

Denis St. Jean, national health and safety officer for PSAC, said the number of inspectors has dropped steadily over the last decade. (CBC)

The number of federal health and safety officers across Canada has been nearly cut in half over the last decade, according to the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The officers are responsible for monitoring and investigating 10 per cent of the workplaces in Canada, including transportation, aviation and financial industries, as well as the federal government.

Numbers provided by PSAC, the largest union representing federal public servants, show staffing levels for federal health and safety officers, who carry out on-site inspections, have dropped from 150 in 2005, to just 80 officers now.

"We're close to a 50 per cent reduction in the number of inspectors," said Denis St. Jean, a health and safety officer with PSAC.

"When you're dealing with big cases, you actually have to have some resources that have a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge and can tap into very particular expertise."

John Anderson, who is currently researching the reduced staffing levels of the federal regulator for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said companies shouldn't be expected to regulate themselves.

'Very dangerous policy'

In fact, he said that policy is a major cause for concern.

"To me that's a very dangerous ideology and very dangerous policy," said Anderson.

The government confirms there are currently 80 health and safety officers, but it takes issue with other numbers provided by the PSAC.

The Department of Labour stated in an email there have actually been "80 dedicated health and safety officers to enforce Part II of the [Canada Labour] Code for the last several years."

A statement from the department reads: "It is both inaccurate and irresponsible to suggest that the number of health and safety officers has dropped from 150 in 2005 to 80 now."

The most recent federal budget proposes hiring 10 new health and safety officers. The department was not able to provide an interview to CBC to clarify the numbers or issues.

The Union of National Employees that represents health and safety officers says the government is playing a "numbers game".

"They're talking about organizational charts, I'm talking about people," said Kevin King, Vice President of the Union of National Employees. 

"For instance, in Ottawa, we should have seven positions, yet there are only three staffed and of those three, one is about to retire and one is on extended sick leave."

King says this is actually not about numbers, it's about a lack of "boots on the ground" to do inspections in federally regulated workplaces.

"Whether we look at meat inspection, whether we look in terms of railways, by not having up-to-date inspection by an outside body, you put yourself open to having terrible disasters which can occur," said Anderson.

Boiler plant explosion in 2009

One such disaster took place inside an Ottawa boiler plant in 2009 when an explosion killed government worker Peter Kennedy and badly injured three others.

John Anderson has been researching federal health and safety inspections for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (CBC)
Both St. Jean and Anderson said they are worried about the lack of inspections at federal boiler facilities in Ottawa since the tragedy.

CBC News has learned federal inspectors haven't even stepped inside the plant almost one year after the department of Public Works was sentenced, despite a court directive to inspect the plant.

In the wake of the disaster, federal health and safety officers laid charges for violations of the Canada Labour Code and Public Works later pleaded guilty to three of those charges.

The labour department says it has now initiated a follow up plan for inspections. 

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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