OHS in Canada: Ontario leads the way

From 1910s to the 1960s, Canada was on a slow (but steady) road to safety

OHS in Canada: Ontario leads the way
A look at workplace health and safety in the early 20th century.

Welcome back to our ‘OHS through the years’ series. In this series, COS is looking back at the history of workplace health and safety in Canada. In our first entry, “Workplace safety in Canada: Where it all started”, we took a look at the very beginnings on the safety movement all the way back in the 1880s.

Today we’ll be taking a look at the 1910s to the 1960s.Those decades saw multiple pieces of legislation aimed at both making workers safe and setting up fair compensation for workers injured on the job. In Canada during this time, Ontario really led the way when it came to workplace health and safety – for a number of reasons, one of those potentially being how heavily industrialised the province was at that time.

The German roots of workplace compensation

Shortly after the Factory Act in 1884, the question soon turned to workers’ compensation. According to WorkSafeNB, workers’ compensation began in Germany in 1884. Indeed, that year the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck* introduced a (compulsory) state-run accident system.

Michael L. Perlin argues that workers’ compensation has been integral to German society and culture for years: “Over a thousand years ago, the basic contours of modern workers' compensation theory were firmly settled in primitive Germanic law.”

“There is little doubt that an 1838 Prussian liability law requiring railroad companies to provide compensation to employees for industrial accidents was the first ‘modern’ step in ‘the care of disabled workmen made necessary by the change in conditions brought about by modern industrial methods’,” he says (“The German and British Roots of American Workers’ Compensation Systems: When Is and Intentional Act Intentional”, Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 15, Issue 4, 1985).

This is important, as workers’ compensation has always been an integral part of workplace health and safety.

Read more: 5 most common workers’ compensation follies

Meredith Principles and the Workmen’s Compensation Act

Here in Canada, Ontario led the way with regards to workers’ compensation. In fact, Ontario has often been on the forefront of the OHS conversation in Canada – something which we will touch upon in the next entry in the series.

WorkSafeNB says that the Ontario government sent politician Sir William Meredith to Europe to observe different compensation system (including the German one) with a view of implementing compensation legislation in the province. His report concluded with the Meredith Principles. These principles were the foundation of workers’ compensation in Ontario and throughout the rest of Canada.

These principles are: no fault compensation; security of benefits; collective liability; independent administration; and exclusive jurisdiction (meaning that only workers’ compensation boards can provide insurance).

Meredith’s recommendations were adopted in 1914. Ontario passed the Workmen’s Compensation Act that year, which created the Workmen’s Compensation Board (which is now the WSIB).

Similar provisions were made soon after in Nova Scotia (1915), Manitoba (1916), B.C. (1917 – though actually the province’s Workmen’s Compensation Act came about in 1902 but only came into effect in 1917 when the Workmen’s Compensation Board was created), and Alberta (1918). Other provinces introduced legislation and compensation boards in later decades.

The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) was founded in 1919.

Better protection for mining and trades

Running parallel to the foundations of workers’ compensation, a number of acts were put into place to protect workers. Contrary to the cross-industry legislation we have today (and which we shall cover later on in the series), these acts were targeted towards specific industries, in specific provinces.

For example, in 1911 Ontario passed the Building Trades Protection Act, which aimed to regulate the safety of tradesmen who worked in building construction. In 1912, the province passed the Mining Act, which introduced new requirements for care and handling of explosives, first aid, shafts or worker refuge places. Both of these have been amended or replaced since.

Mining notably has always been a sector which has engendered a huge concern about health and safety in Ontario. Though mining industries existed in other provinces, it was very prevalent in Ontario at the time – and Laurel MacDowell, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, says that with regards to pushing OHS, “the motivation at the time came out of the mining industry.”

“In other words,” she says, “people were becoming more aware that [unsafe conditions were] something that not only had gone on a long time, but that they could make better by having some kind of legislation and procedures set up to deal with health and safety issues in workplaces.”

Broadly, over the next few decades, a number of amendments and acts were established to increase protection for workers’ across a number of industries, both on a federal and provincial level. This includes occupational health and safety efforts made during World War II, and better protections for federal workers.

World wars may have played a part in advancing health and safety in the workplace. With regards to early compensation efforts, MacDowell says “I don't know if [OHS] had anything to do with the end of the First World War. It's possible because there was a lot of manufacturing during the war. And it may be that it highlighted some of the workplace issues.”

Nevertheless, these were disparate pieces of legislation. And workplaces remained unsafe for most workers. Indeed, Workplace Safety North estimates that in Ontario from 1915 to 1928, 4,737 workers lost their lives on the job.

Read more: Workers’ compensation: a matter of location

Industrial Safety Act of 1964

Advances in Ontario were accelerated by a tragic accident which happened on March 17, 1960.

According to the Canadian Labour Congress, five men were working in a tunnel at Hogg’s Hollow under the Don River in Toronto. A fire broke out in the tunnel; the men, who hadn’t been equipped with hard hats or torches, got caved in after a rescue team shut down air to the tunnel. The five men ended up dying of carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation from inhaling smoke, sand and water.

Following this horrific incident, unions demanded changes and Ontario passed the Industrial Safety Act in 1964.

This new act essentially replaced the Factory Act of 1884 (which had been amended a few times since, more recently to the Factory, Shop and Office Building Act). In this act, safety was defined as “freedom from injury to the body or freedom from damage to health”. This means that the employer is required to take reasonable precautions to ensure worker safety.

This act ended up being the foundation of the Canada Labour (Safety) Code which passed years later.

*Germany’s first Chancellor – in Germany is the head of the government. Germany was unified in 1871 and was still a relatively young country in 1884.