OH&S in Saskatchewan: Reflecting on 50 years

The creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1972 was the government’s first well-intentioned attempt at developing workplace health and safety legislation. The SFL criticized this legislation, identifying a series of inadequacies that prompted the government to rethink it. The Department of Labour agreed to revise the new act and deal with the deficiencies identified by labour. What the labour movement was looking for was a plan based on the principle of prevention. Rather than simply paying people when they became ill or were injured or killed on the job, they envisioned a plan that would keep people from being hurt in the first place. At the time, sections of the business community argued that workers were inherently careless and this was the primary cause of workplace illness and injury. Saskatchewan’s Department of Labour rejected this idea, assuming instead that accidents were related to inherently hazardous workplaces.

The new plan sought to reform unsafe work environments in order to reduce worker illness and injuries, and its provisions were enforced by regulations and inspections. Of course, small steps had begun to improve workplace safety as far back as the days of Walter Scott, such as regulations that required employers to provide safe scaffolding on construction projects. There were inspectors for elevators, SaskPower had gas inspectors, and the turmoil in the coal fields had produced efforts at ensuring mine safety through inspections. But the legislation being considered was much broader in scope than any of the measures that had come before it. If successful, the health and safety of working people in the province would be measurably improved and overall health care costs and compensation claims would be reduced.

And Saskatchewan had a long way to go. The province had the unfortunate distinction of being a national leader in the number of workers per capita killed or injured on the job. Unfortunately, the good intentions of the Department of Labour in the 1970s failed to produce a long-lasting reduction in serious injuries. As subsequent events would demonstrate, however, this had more to do with a lack of enforcement by subsequent administrations than it did with the quality of the legislation developed in the 1970s. Saskatchewan continues to lead the nation in workplace-related deaths and injuries. Every year, 25-40 working people lose their lives in industrial accidents in the province.

In a 2004 interview, long-time Labour civil servant Bob Sass claimed the initial push behind the creation of the provincial occupational health and safety legislation came from international unions like the Steelworkers: “The United States had created an Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) in 1971, and people who belonged to international unions were reading about it in their union papers and hearing about it from their brothers and sisters in the U.S. They were understandably interested in having the NDP government in Saskatchewan take a look at the U.S. system to see if it could be put in place here.”

According to Sass, Walter Smishek played an important role in getting the government to move forward on occupational health: “The Department of Health already had an occupational safety unit, but it was barely staffed and had a very limited mandate. John Richards, a former U of S Professor and MLA, had been helping Smishek launch a series of probes into new areas to explore for improving health care and some of the initial thinking came from his work.” The decision was eventually made to move responsibility for occupational health and safety to the Department of Labour.

As the task of improving the 1972 Occupational Health and Safety Act proceeded, Bob Sass welcomed the contribution of prominent Saskatchewan labour activists and environmentalists. According to Sass, no one was more influential in this regard than the SFL President at the time, Ross Hale, and former SFL President Bill Gilbey. As head of the Grain Services Union, Gilbey advanced the health and safety interests of his membership, especially with respect to grain dust in elevators, linking it to lung conditions faced by the farmer/owners of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.

According to Sass, “Gilbey’s interest in occupational health was karate-like. It was focused and concentrated. He had a large influence on my early development and thinking on the subject.”
Sass began his study of OH&S issues by talking with the union people in the United States, including the United Steelworkers of America’s health and safety people in Pittsburgh. He discovered the American trade unionists weren’t entirely enamoured with their new legislation. It seemed that a lot of the motivation behind OHSA legislation was the desire of governments and big business to come up with a way to head off litigation by both workers and environmentalists. One of the biggest failings of the US law was that it relied heavily on the role of scientists and experts to determine what was safe and unsafe.

A unique Saskatchewan solution was developed which emphasized three fundamental rights, and formed a foundation for the province’s revised “Sass Version” of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1974. First, regulations were put in place to uphold workers’ rights to be informed of potential hazards. Second, workers were given the right to participate in joint labour-management Occupational Health and Safety Committees to ensure workplace safety. Third - and by far the most revolutionary addition to the plan - workers were given the right to refuse unsafe work without fear of reprisal. This right was based on workers’ perceptions of what was harmful to their well-being, even without supporting data and expert studies. Workers didn’t have to go to the library, read up, and submit a paper before getting themselves out of potentially unsafe circumstances.

Sass maintains “That right came specifically from the labour movement, in particular from SFL president Ross Hale. I had discussions with Ross about my concerns over the dominance of employer-sponsored expert data under the American system. Ross took the view that if you had to debate the literature about whether or not something caused disease it could go on forever. To make OH&S meaningful ,he believed we needed something like the strike. Without the strike, collective bargaining would be a never-ending debate. To Ross’s mind the right to refuse unsafe work would be to OH&S what the strike is to collective bargaining.”

The evolving legislation eventually contained additional provisions and regulations to help ensure safer work environments. For example, asbestos was declared to be a harmful substance for the first time anywhere in North America. The new rules maintained that there was no safe limit for known carcinogens. If a workplace was seen to be particularly dangerous, the Minister could place it under medical supervision. Doctors were required to provide reports to the Department of Labour’s new chief medical health officer in regard to people who became injured or ill on the job.

Additional efforts were made to make workplace environments more worker-friendly and reduce fatigue. A measure was put in place that stipulated that work could be done from a sitting position as opposed to standing, should be done sitting down. Sass remembers that this was one provision that drew the ire of employers. Department store managers had difficulty accepting the premise that sales clerks should not have to stand behind jewelry or cosmetic counters every minute of the day, putting up with unnecessary strain on their feet, legs, and back. Bosses argued that the clerks needed to be up on their feet and smiling, giving the appearance of being alert, eager and ready to serve customers. Fifty years ago, employees could still be disciplined for sitting down and doing their job effectively, and in some workplaces, including some of the provincial government’s own typing pools, talking was prohibited unless it was directly work-related. Management used school bells in government workplaces right up until the early 1970s that let the “girls” know when they could look up from their typewriters, speak, or go to the washroom. It took OH&S legislation, strong unions, and the liberal, anti-establishment attitudes of the 1970s to creates less dehumanizing workplaces. By the end of the decade, workers didn’t have to put up with foremen watching them drop their pants and timing them while they sat on the toilet. It was no longer acceptable to operate Saskatchewan workplaces like combination sweatshops and primary school classrooms.

Finally, to give OH&S legislation life, people were hired to administer it. Inspectors were sent into the field to investigate workplace safety, and they had the force of fines and penalties backing them up to ensure compliance.

The OH&S legislation met with limited public and employer resistance. In Sass’s estimation, this was in part because people were encouraged to view occupational health and safety as a health issue. Health had been a major battleground in the 1971 provincial election campaign, and not many employers or opposition members in the legislature had the will to challenge the NDP government on health issues.

“What the labour movement was looking for was a plan based on the principal of prevention ...they envisioned a plan that would keep people from being hurt in the first place.”

“The new plan sought to reform unsafe work environments in order to reduce worker illness and injuries.”

“A unique Saskatchewan solution was developed which emphasized three fundamental rights...”