Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice. Information contained herein is intended to provide knowledge about Canadian employment laws to small business owners and to encourage small business owners, entrepreneurs and independent contractors to seek further education about the laws and statutes that govern their businesses. This article is the property of Okanagan Small Business Services, Inc. © 2019. All Rights Reserved. This document may not be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form without the prior written consent of the publisher.
Occupational health and safety (OH&S), a.k.a. "workplace safety", is a very important consideration for every employer in British Columbia. Not only are there economic and moral reasons for developing an OH&S program, there are also legal requirements to do so. Generally, the task of developing an OH&S program in a small business falls on the shoulders of the owner, but it is often overlooked as an unnecessarily time-consuming task which can lead to trouble down the road.
WHAT'S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN?
In BC, workplace health and safety measures are taken very seriously. Failure to comply with statutory standards can result in fines of up to $687,358.45 and/or imprisonment for just a first conviction; fines only increase from there for subsequent violations. In addition to fines, small businesses may incur indirect costs such as increased insurance premiums. Aside from financial implications, a preventable workplace accident can lead to bad publicity which can be just as damaging.
The OH&S needs of small businesses vary greatly. Certain businesses and industries are inherently more dangerous than others, so they will require more in-depth consideration and specialized knowledge when creating a workplace safety program. It can be daunting for a small business owner to know where to begin. In this article, we will try to simplify the OH&S statutes and legal requirements in BC to help you understand how your business can comply with them.
In BC, there are two main statutes that address health and safety in the workplace: the Workers Compensation Act (WCA) and Occupational Health and Safety Regulation (OHSR). It is important to note that small businesses may also be subject to other industry-specific statutes both provincially and federally (such as the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act or the Waste Management Act). Employers have an obligation to find out which industry-specific statutes apply to them and to comply with their requirements. In addition, every employer should also be aware of potential consequences for workplace safety violations under Canada’s Criminal Code.
We understand that this may already seem overwhelming, but rest assured that for most small businesses in BC, complying with WCA and OSHR requirements will suffice. For that reason, we will focus our discussion on these two main legislative bodies.
WORKERS COMPENSATION ACT (WCA)
The Workers Compensation Act (WCA) is an employer-funded, no-fault insurance program that is administered by WorkSafeBC. Every employer in BC with one or more employee must register with WorkSafeBC and pay into the program. If you are a small business owner with no employees, you may register for optional coverage but are not required to do so. The purpose of the WCA is to compensate employees in the event of a work-related injury or illness. Rates for coverage will vary depending on the nature of the industry, the potential for injuries or illnesses, and the employer’s safety record (if applicable). Naturally, the more dangerous the work is, the higher your rates will be.
The WCA also gives all workers three important rights:
An employer’s requirements for complying with these three workers’ rights are outlined in the Occupational Health and Safety Regulation (OHSR). The WCA and OHSR work together in tandem to promote workplace health and safety.
OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY REGULATION (OHSR)
The Occupational Health and Safety Regulation (OHSR) outlines an employer’s responsibilities when it comes to health and safety in the workplace. The focus is on prevention. The OHSR is based on a system of joint responsibility, also called the “internal responsibility system”. This system holds everyone in the workplace accountable for workplace health and safety – including owners, managers, supervisors and employees. However, do not mistake the shared responsibility system as an opportunity to allow workplace safety to fall on someone else’s shoulders! Establishing an effective OH&S program and enforcing it in the workplace is primarily the employer’s responsibility.
Under the OHSR, every employer must establish a health and safety program for their workplace. The formality of this program will vary depending on how many employees the employer has and how inherently dangerous the work is. For small "low hazard" workplaces with up to 10 employees, informal monthly discussions regarding health and safety matters in the workplace may suffice. For workplaces that have 20 or more workers, a formal OH&S program must be established that includes a joint health and safety committee (JHSC). The JHSC is an advisory group of both workers and management representatives that meet regularly to discuss health and safety matters. If an employer has between 10-19 workers, a single worker can act as the health and safety representative, effectively taking the place of a JHSC. The process for establishing a JHSC and the responsibilities of the committee are outside the scope of this article however, the OHSR covers these topics in detail.
Under OHSR, an employer is responsible for preparing a written Workplace Safety Manual. This manual must comply with the WCA, OHSR and all other relevant industry-specific statutes. The employer must ensure that this manual is prominently displayed in the workplace and is readily available for employees to read.
In addition to preparing a written safety manual, employers have many other responsibilities including:
This list is not exhaustive. We encourage every small business owner to familiarize themselves with the OHSR and to contact WorkSafeBC to clarify their workplace-specific obligations.
Workplace Safety Manuals
Although a complete list of the steps required to develop an effective OH&S program are outside the scope of this article, a good first step for employers is to develop a written Workplace Safety Manual. This manual will be workplace-specific (you cannot just copy and paste a policy you find on the internet into your policy). It must discuss the risks and hazards that are specific to your workplace and how you intend to control them. For offices with low hazard ratings, your workplace safety manual may simply be a section contained in your Company Policy Manual. For businesses with high hazard ratings, it may be an extensive stand-alone document that contains both safety policies and procedures. The workplace safety manual will be used as a reference guide to train employees and potentially as part of your legal defense in the event of a safety-related claim.
Writing a workplace safety manual begins with a workplace hazards analysis. This analysis requires employers to identify all obvious and potential hazards in their workplace. The process can look very different for every workplace. For some small businesses, it may be as simple as walking through the workplace and conducting a visual inspection. For others, it may be quite complex and require testing, methodologies and outsourcing of professional help.
WorkSafeBC assigns workplace hazard ratings that range from Low to High. The rating depends on how many risks and hazards are present in the workplace and how many employees there are, and is used to determine rates for WorkSafeBC coverage. You can determine your hazard rating here:
HOW WE CAN HELP
Workplace risks and hazards can vary dramatically from business to business, therefore workplace safety is a specialized body of knowledge. Safety manuals should be developed by people who understand your workplace and the risks involved. At Okanagan Small Business Services, our scope is limited to writing generalized workplace safety policies for small businesses with low hazard ratings. If your business has a Moderate to High hazard rating, we recommend contacting a professional OH&S firm that specializes in developing comprehensive workplace safety programs.
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Danielle Harshenin, BBA, leads the HR department at Okanagan Small Business Services. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge with small business owners.