Manitobans concerned about COVID-19 are flooding the province’s Workplace Safety and Health office with tips about unsafe work.
Calls to the Workplace Safety and Health branch tripled in the weeks following the pandemic declaration in mid-March. Safety officers are looking into 118 tips received from the public, according to a department spokesperson.
Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union safety specialist Blaine Duncan says the spike in calls was to be expected in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. He says workers, employers and members of the public need guidance.
“Employers are struggling. Workers are fearful,” said Duncan.
“There is lots of information out there and perhaps too much information for people to wade through. We need a body, or limited number of bodies at least, to be in regular contact with employers to ensure that workers are safe as we reopen these businesses.”
Duncan wants WSH officers to start enforcing the Public Health Act alongside the Workplace Health and Safety Act. That responsibility primarily rests with public health inspectors who have oversight over restaurants, grocery stores and esthetic services like nail salons.
“There’s no more important time to collaborate and integrate workplace safety and public safety than right now,” he said.
Duncan says WSH officers have done some work in health-care settings during the start of the pandemic but now they are ready to do more.
“Our anticipation is that as this week and the next few weeks continue to see employers opening businesses, that those officers are engaging those employers in a proactive way to assist them in making sure that their staff are safe and that the public that are coming in there are safe.”
A spokesperson from the department says workplace safety laws already require employers to put reasonable controls in place to reduce risks including infectious illness.
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck is concerned with government cuts to the Workplace Safety and Health branch budget.
“As [COVID-19 infections] started heating up, we’ve been calling for enhanced investments in health and safety,” said Rebeck, whose organization called on the government to restore more than $500,000 in cuts made to the Workplace Safety and Health branch in this year’s budget.
In March, the government carved away $539,000 from the branch whose officers inspect, educate and conduct enforcement of workplace safety rules.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding says the decrease was not a cut, rather, it was decrease due to a one-time cost to set up a new IT system in 2019.
“The change is not attributable to staffing or operational changes,” wrote Fielding in a letter given to CBC News by his press secretary.
Funding to WSH has decreased from $9.3 million in 2016-17 to $8.6 million in 2020-21, according to budget documents. Staffing has gone down from 87 full-time employees to 79 during the same period.
In addition, the branch under-spent its $9.8-million budget by $2.1 million in 2018-19, $1.8 million in 2017-18 and $1.4 million in 2016-2017 for a total of $5.3 million. More than $3 million of that total was attributed to salary savings due to vacant positions.
A departmental spokesperson says salary savings are the result of vacancies for sick leaves and parental leave not being filled and the number of positions on paper have remained the same from 2018-19 to the current budget.
“Now more than ever, people are pretty concerned about health and safety issues and people want and need to know how their workplaces are going to stay safe, both for them as workers and for people to come and be consumers,” said Rebeck.
Right to refuse unsafe work
Workers in Manitoba have the right to refuse unsafe work and WSH officers step in when there is a dispute.
Safety officers have investigated five work refusals related to COVID-19. In three of the cases, the worker was able to return to work safely. The other two were resolved without needing an officer to make a determination.
John Graham of the Retail Council of Canada says he has no basis to know what the optimal ratio of provincial inspectors to businesses ought to be. .
“What I do know is that no matter how many inspectors are out visiting stores, the more effective tool is broader education and helping provide tools for businesses to be able to understand what needs to be implemented,” said Graham.
He says government has a role to play in communicating best safety practices but he adds it’s not the only way to keep workers safe.
“The reality is that there’s a good system in place based on managing a business’s reputation. They want to be committed to doing the right thing for their employees and be perceived as being leaders for customers,” said Graham.
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