New Workplace Rules Aim to Protect Workers

Three basic rights — the right to know,
the right to refuse unsafe work,
and the right to participate in workplace
health and safety issues

New Workplace Rules Aim to Protect Workers
Long Overdue Changes

By Michelle Walters

This article appeared in
School of Journalism, University of Kings College
Halifax, Wednesday, 15 January 1997

This was found on the Internet, at

After the 1992 Westray mining disaster, the Nova Scotia Department of Labor asked its occupational health and safety advisory council to conduct a full review of existing workplace health and safety legislation. The result of that three-year review is what advisory council co-chair Rob Wells calls "probably the most thorough review of a piece of legislation in any jurisdiction in this country."

The changes were long overdue; the Occupational Health and Safety Act hadn't been updated since 1986.

The new act came into effect January 1, 1997. Over the next two weeks (Jan. 14-28), the department will hold information sessions across the province to answer questions that may come up as workplaces implement the new rules.

"Health and safety is a real partnership thing," department spokesperson Jennifer MacIsaac says. "Both employers and employees should be interested in finding out what their rights and responsibilities are."

The information sessions will focus on the "general principles behind the act while also talking about some of the specific things that are required as well," she says.

For example, the sessions will probably include information about the proper steps to take if you think the work you're doing isn't safe.

Following the May 1992 Westray explosion that killed 26 miners, several employees at the mine testified they believed the mine was unsafe but were afraid to speak out, saying they feared they might be fired.

The Westray mine inquiry also heard that labor department inspectors observed dozens of safety violations at the coal mine in the three years leading up to the explosion. No charges were ever laid.

Under the new legislation, employees will be able to refuse work in dangerous conditions, and they can demand a labor department inspection of the workplace, the results of which will have to be posted.

Under the new legislation, the department's occupational health and safety division is also required to compile an annual report and submit it to an advisory council. The council will then look at whether additional revisions and/or improvements are necessary and make that recommendation to the minister.

"Some of our regulations are so old," MacIsaac says. "We realize now that there's a need to sort of stay on top of changes in the workplace because the workplace changes so rapidly these days. Certainly we're not going to let it go as long as we had before this last review was done."


For the first time, employers and employees have the right to appeal decisions of labor department occupational health and safety officers.

The legislation gives greater support to workers who refuse unsafe work. For example, there are stronger provisions to protect workers who have been adversely affected for exercising their right to refuse. Officers may order reinstatement of a dismissed worker, payment of lost wages, removal of a reprimand, or similar action.

During workplace inspections and testing, employees and employers will have the right to accompany an OHS officer.

OHS policies and representatives will be required in organizations with five or more employees. Health and safety programs and committees are necessary for companies with 20 or more workers. Recognizing the need for employer-employee consultation, policies will not be required until July, 1997, and programs will not kick in until January, 1998.

The act clarifies the roles and duties of various workplace parties, including the chain of responsibility on multi-employer sites. For the first time, owners, professional engineers, architects and suppliers of health and safety services are included.

There are new requirements for communicating OHS information such as safety committee minutes, inspection reports, testing, appeals, etc. Written responses to OHS orders and committee recommendations will also be required.

Penalties will rise from a maximum of $10,000 to $250,000. Maximum imprisonment will increase from one year to two years. Alternative sentencing is another new option. It might include contributing to OHS education, participating in community service or publishing details about an offence.

The act paves the way for OHS officers to use summary offence tickets. This would improve the division's ability to enforce rules and make the best use of time and resources.

The act focuses on early training and prevention by phasing-in the duty to teach OHS principles in trade schools and community colleges. This will be effective January 1, 1999.

Sessions are free and run from 6:30pm to 8:30pm. To register, or to receive more information, please contact the Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety division at: 1-800-952-2687 or 424-5400.

NOVANEWSNET is written and produced weekdays,
excluding holidays, during the academic term
by students at the University of King's College School of Journalism
in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Go To:   Westray Scrapbook Fifty clippings about the Westray coal mine disaster
Go to:   Main Westray Coal Mine Disaster page
Go to:   Westray Public Inquiry online transcript of testimony
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