Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sask. Party government refusing to disclose occupational health and safety briefing notes; Don Morgan no better than Rob Norris on labour file

The Saskatchewan Party government is refusing to release records containing details of its review of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

On May 5, 2011, Labour Relations and Workplace Safety (LRWS) deputy minister Mike Carr denied an access to information request made in April for copies of any briefing notes since October 1, 2010, regarding or relating to any type of review of the Act. Four records, totaling 11 pages, are being withheld in their entirety.

According to Carr, access to the records was denied because they contain cabinet confidences and advice from officials.

The ministry violated the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by not applying section 8 pertaining to severability, which is mandatory and states: “Where a record contains information to which an applicant is refused access, the head shall give access to as much of the record as can reasonably be severed without disclosing the information to which the applicant is refused access.”

This is the second access request for OHS related records that the Wall government has turned down.

In February 2009, the former Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour received a request for copies of any reviews, analysis or studies that had been conducted by or for the provincial government since May 1, 2008, of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers’ Compensation Act.

The then deputy minister of AEEL, Wynne Young, denied the request outright on March 24, 2009. Not one scrap of information was released. Young’s decision was subsequently appealed to the province’s information and privacy commissioner for review. The case is still pending.

On April 20, 2011, LRWS announced the launch of consultations on proposed amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“The proposed amendments are aimed at improving workplace health and safety to help us achieve Mission: Zero,” LRWS Minister Don Morgan said in a news release.

The proposed amendments include the sufficiency of current levels of penalties, benefits of alternative types of penalties, and whether the revenue collected from these penalties should be partially re-directed toward furthering public education and prevention efforts.

The deadline for public feedback on the amendments is May 20, 2011.

News of the proposed amendments came as a complete surprise. There was no advance warning.

As part of the consultation process, the ministry sent out a package to approximately 200 stakeholders and 5,400 Occupational Health Committees inviting them to participate in the consultation process.

One the organizations to receive a package (comprised of a discussion paper, questionnaire and a letter from Morgan dated April 19, 2011) was the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. However, they did not receive it until April 27, giving them barely three weeks to respond.

This prompted a letter from federation president Larry Hubich to Morgan expressing concern and disappointment over the government’s actions.

Even if the SFL had received the minister’s letter on the very day it was dated, Hubich said a deadline of May 20 for considering changes to the OHS Act would still be unrealistic.

“The Act protects the safety of the working people in this province and one month is simply not nearly enough time to thoughtfully consider changes to the legislation,” Hubich said in the letter dated May 6, 2011, which was shared with other individuals and groups and forwarded to the media.

“Because your Ministry has already prepared a list of desired changes, research and preparation must have begun some time ago. We cannot understand why we were not given adequate notice and time to participate in this important process. Major stakeholders should have been notified at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Asking for surveys to be filled out only a few short weeks before proposals for changes are finalized does not constitute consultation, Hubich said.

Don Morgan was named Minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety in a cabinet shuffle by Premier Brad Wall on June 29, 2010, replacing Rob Norris on the labour file. Norris was quite possibly the worst labour minister the province had seen in many decades. Labour leaders were hopeful that relations with the Wall government would improve under Morgan.

According to the StarPhoenix, on the day of his appointment to the labour relations portfolio, Morgan apparently left a message for Hubich seeking to set up a meeting.

In an interview with reporter James Wood on July 5, 2010, Morgan acknowledged part of his role is to develop “a better working relationship” with organized labour.

“When you’ve had some difficult times, sometimes a fresh face can put some of that personal animosity behind. . . . I’m certainly willing to try and meet with people that are active on the labour side and try to see if there are more areas of common ground,” said Morgan. [Labour leaders eye better relations with gov’t after cabinet shuffle (StarPhoenix, July 6, 2010)]

It would appear that Morgan has since squandered any goodwill that might have existed between the parties.

In his letter to the minister, Hubich notes that Morgan last year committed to a meeting with the SFL’s occupational health and safety committee, a commitment he failed to live up to. The SFL human rights committee had asked for a meeting with Morgan to discuss legislative changes to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, but that, too, failed to materialize. Labour relations practitioners also asked to meet with Morgan to discuss the proposed amendments to the Trade Union Act regulations, but the request was turned down.

“When it comes to the laws and regulations that affect workers and their families, it is time you respected and welcomed the labour movement’s expertise and commitment,” Hubich wrote.

Like the song says, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

LRWS suggests in the discussion paper sent to stakeholders that the amendments are needed to improve the safety performance of Saskatchewan workplaces, which continues to have the second highest workplace rate in the country.

“While the majority of the proposed amendments are based on the Occupational Health and Safety Council’s 2006 recommendations following the review of the adequacy of the Act and have been consulted upon, a number of additional proposals are being made in which stakeholder input is sought. These additional proposals have arisen based upon review of best practices in industry and other jurisdictions, and issues emerging since 2007,” the document’s introduction states.

It should be noted that a copy of the 2006 report and recommendations was not included in the packages sent to stakeholders by LRWS. It doesn’t appear to be posted online either. How are stakeholders supposed to refer to it if it’s not made available?

Exactly who conducted the review of best practices in industry and other jurisdictions or what specifically were the issues emerging since 2007 is not explained. An email asking these questions was sent to LRWS communications consultant Jennifer Veri on May 10, 2011. Veri’s name appears on the April 20 government news release as the contact person for further information. A follow-up email was sent on May 13 to see if a response was forthcoming. So far no one from the ministry has bothered to respond.

First the briefing notes were denied and now general questions about the process are being ignored. What on earth is the Wall government hiding?

Buried at the bottom of page two of the discussion paper is the following sentence: “Please note that when updates to the OHS regulations are proposed, further consultations will occur.”

This means the issue will only uglier as time goes on.

Update: In an email response dated May 16, 2011, Christine Markel, a senior policy analyst with the occupational health and safety unit in LRWS, has advised that “the additional proposals being made on issues emerging since 2007 arose from and were researched and reviewed by Ministry staff.” She also states that the Occupational Health and Safety Council’s 2006 report “is considered a report to the Minister and has not been publicly released.” A lot of good that does stakeholders who would like to review the report before answering any questions in the latest so-called consultation.


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