Why is there no appetite for criminal health and safety charges?

After more than six years, and almost no use, what’s the point of having a corporate killing law on the books?

By Todd Humber (todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com)

The spring of 2004 looked like it was going to be a massive turning point in health and safety in Canada.

Bill C-45, otherwise known as the “corporate killing law,” became the law of the land and, with its threat of jail time for senior executives, signaled what many thought would be a sea change in occupational health and safety. (The law came in the wake of the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers in Nova Scotia.)

And yet, in the six years since, the law has gone virtually unused with only a handful of charges. Why? It’s not like workers aren’t dying on the job anymore.

More proof of the reluctance to lay criminal charges came in the wake of the Christmas eve 2009 accident in Toronto. Four construction workers were killed and another seriously injured when scaffolding at a high-rise apartment collapsed. But when the charges were laid (the news came out just this past weekend), Bill C-45 was again curiously silent.

The charges laid by the province are certainly serious — up to $17 million in fines have been laid against two companies, and jail time is a possibility for individual executives and supervisors. But all of the charges appear to be under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act according to published reports, not criminal charges under the Criminal Code envisioned in Bill C-45.

Bill C-45 is starting to look like that dusty old exercise bike in the corner — bought with the best of intentions, but neglected nonetheless.

Some argue police simply need more education on C-45, that they still don’t understand the law and how to use it. Others argue there is too much overlap between C-45 and provincial health and safety laws.

What do you think? Why aren’t authorities using their power to lay criminal charges in workplace health and safety incidents? Join the conversation by adding a comment.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. For more information, visit www.hrreporter.com.


3 Responses to “Why is there no appetite for criminal health and safety charges?”

  1. 1 Lou August 26, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    You are asking a very good question in your article and I would love to know the answer.

    And of course when the crown laid their first C45 charges in 2004, the case didn’t warrant it. (Article attached)

    In a recent meeting I had with Peter Fonseca the Minister of Labour, I urged him to pursue criminal charges for the 4 Christmas Eve fatalities in 2009. I also urged Minister Fonseca to talk to the AG’s office to pressure them into laying criminal charges.

    If more criminal charges are laid in OHS matters, this would send a message to negligent employers and I believe we will see a change in mindset and the fatality numbers to start going down.

    It really makes me a bit of a doubting Thomas, when for 20 years the construction industry, MOL and WSIB have largely agreed that we need mandatory entry level training for all construction workers and supervisors, however neither the PC nor the Liberals seem to have the drive to make it happen. I know he got blamed for the recession in the 1990’s but, Bob Rae’s government was the only one who made a significant change to OHS legislation to help workers in the past 25 years.

    Minister Fonseca appointed the Tony Dean panel to make recommendations. I will be very interested to see how many of those recommendations will be accepted and implemented. I really hope we are at an OHS turning point but I am not so sure.

  2. 2 Brian Kreissl September 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    I suppose it might have something to do with the fact that penalties under provincial OH&S legislation are pretty stiff on their own. Fines can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and people can actually do jail time.

  3. 3 John Hobel September 28, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Was there value in passing Bill C45 when provincial legislation can be used to charge individuals and companies in cases of workplace deaths? That’s a good question. It’s important to remember Bill C45 was a response to public unhappiniess with the way courts handled the Westray Mine case. 26 Nova Scotia miners lost their lives at Westray in 1992. Bill C-45 was meant to send a message to corporate Canada about health and safety. Canadians can be glad the last decades have not seen a tragedy of Westray proportions.

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