Workplace safety in Canada: New challenges on the horizon

How occupational health and safety has evolved since 1980 until now

Workplace safety in Canada: New challenges on the horizon
This final instalment covers advances made in 1980s.

Welcome back to our ‘OHS through the years’ series. In this series, COS is looking back at over 100 years of workplace health and safety in Canada. In this final entry, we take a look at the advances made in the 1980s and current issues facing safety professionals today.

In our previous installment, we covered key pieces of legislation born in Saskatchewan and Ontario. Both trailblazers in this regard, other provinces soon followed suit with their own OHS legislation in the 1980s and 1990s. It is important to note that in all provinces, these acts have (thankfully) been updated (and been updated multiple times) since their original iterations.

In the 80s and 90s, occupational health and safety developed in a big way in Canada. Laurel MacDowell, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, says that after the progress made in the 1970s, the basic infrastructure and legislation was in place.

“The other thing that develops is that you begin to have workplace safety committees all over,” says MacDowell. “It became universal; that for everybody who worked anywhere, there would be a health and safety committee. And if there was a problem, they could raise it.”

In this series we have covered the numerous advances that have taken place since the Factory Act of 1884. But really, occupational health and safety as we understand it today is still a relatively recent concern. And so, it is important to leave space for these acts to grow and evolve as our conception of workplace safety evolves, and as we encounter new workplace hazards.

Read more: Workplace safety in Canada: Where it all started

Most importantly, this series has highlighted that one thing we take for granted now, is that we even have occupational health and safety laws at all. OHS legislation was hard fought for and spurred by tragedies such as Hogg’s Hollow (1960) as well as various labour movements. Concurrently to this, the role of safety professional has also evolved. More and more Canadians are choosing to pursue a career in safety.

In fact, this is another key thing that this series has highlighted: that occupational health and safety is an area which consistently attracts passionate and driven individuals. We owe a lot to figures such as Sir William Meredith, James Milton Ham and, as we noted in our previous entry, Bob Sass.

Sass, a key figure in the establishment of Saskatchewan’s Occupational Health Act in 1972, was also instrumental is another key piece of 1980s OHS legislation: WHMIS.

Read more: OHS in Canada: Ontario leads the way

Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS)

In 1974, Sass became Saskatchewan’s Associate Deputy Minister of Labour. As part of his role, he helped bring in some of the first regulations to protect asbestos workers. He also started advocating for proper labeling of industrial products. His efforts led to clearer labeling in Saskatchewan. For example, new regulations were introduced in 1981 to the province’s OHS Act which required employers to provide employees a list with products clearly labelled as well as provide emergency procedures in case of leaks or spills.

His advocacy ended up contributing to the development of the Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS) in 1988.

By 1988, all of this contributed to a Canada-wide federal/provincial agreement establishing a uniform system of identifying and labeling hazardous substances under the Workplace Hazardous Material Information System (WHMIS). What exactly is WHMIS?

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) WHMIS is “a comprehensive plan for providing information on the safe use of hazardous materials used in Canadian workplaces. Information is provided by means of product labels, material safety data sheets (MSDS) and worker education programs…It was created in response to the Canadian workers' right to know about the safety and health hazards that may be associated with the materials or chemicals they use at work.”

WHMIS applies to all of Canada. It became a law through complementary federal, provincial and territorial legislation that came into effect on October 31, 1988. WHMIS was actually updated in 2015 to reflect the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) initiative developed by the United Nations (UN). This updated version is referred to as WHMIs 2015, with the original version being referred to as WHMIS 1988.

Read more: 1970s: The decade that changed workplace safety

Where do we go from here?

Between 1988 and now, there have been a wealth of worker safety advances:

For example, in 2018 the government of Canada finally banned asbestos and asbestos-containing products. In that year, Bill C-65 also came into effect, providing better protection against workplace violence and harassment for federally-employed workers.

Another thing to note is that since 1988, the rate of work-related injury has been declining! Indeed, it has gone from 40 injuries among every 1,000 workers in 1988 to 20 injuries per 1,000 workers in 2006 according to the Canadian Public Health Association. This can only be as a result of the introduction of these key pieces of OHS legislation throughout the years.

When thinking about recent workplace safety developments, one that immediately sprung to mind was COVID-19 and its effects on the Canadian workplace. Very honestly, looking back at 2020 I’m not sure if there was really anything else on my mind that year.

Between the SARS outbreak which happened in 2002 – 2003 (which occurred mainly in Toronto) and COVID-19, it is more than likely that infectious diseases will be a new front for workplace safety advocates. And with mental health becoming a bigger and bigger concern for Canadian workers, I have no doubt that advances will be made on that front too.

It certainly is an interesting – and no doubt historic – era that we are living in. In any case, here’s to (at least) another hundred years of safer workplaces!