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Ontario's Global Ergonomics Month sparks safety enforcement blitz

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The Ministry of Labor for the Canadian province of Ontario is putting its enforcement muscle behind an effort to raise awareness of ergonomics issues this month.

For the first time, the ministry and its health and safety partners are taking part in Global Ergonomics Month — an initiative held annually in October to increase awareness of ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorder hazards in workplaces.

These musculoskeletal disorders account for more than 40% of all lost-time compensation claims in Ontario, according to the province's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, with combined direct and indirect costs conservatively estimated at $19 billion from 1996 to 2006.

The ministry is doing its part by conducting two enforcement blitzes, said Brian McInnes, provincial ergonomist at the Ontario Ministry of Labor in Toronto. The material handling inspection blitz, which examines how employers are dealing with the loading, unloading, storage and movement of goods and supplies in workplaces, launched on Sept. 14 and will last through Friday.

“These actions can result in musculoskeletal disorders if done improperly,” Mr. McInnes said.

Under Canada's Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have a duty to provide information, instruction and supervision to protect workers from material handling hazards and take every reasonable precaution to protect workers from musculoskeletal disorders, such as low back or shoulder injuries, according to the ministry. Employers must also ensure equipment, materials and protective devices are provided and maintained in good condition.

A separate enforcement blitz being conducted throughout October is aimed at the construction sector focusing on heavy equipment operation, with an eye toward identifying ergonomics hazards such as vibrations and lines of sight, Mr. McInnes said.

A blitz is a proactive component of the ministry's enforcement efforts that focuses on specific hazards or specific industries and the performance of field visits, he said. If OHSA inspectors find any hazards that violate the act, they issue orders directing employers or supervisors to address them, Mr. McInnes said.

“The ministry is hoping that the more awareness is raised around ergonomics hazards, the more workplaces will try to address and eliminate those hazards,” he said.

The parts of these orders relating to ergonomics issues do not feature financial penalties because there are no specific standards or regulations allowing for imposition of such penalties, but employers can be issued summons for ergonomics-related injuries under the act or related regulations, Mr. McInnes said. And in Ontario, orders are generally issued without fines because orders are a starting point, although tickets up to CA$1,000 ($774.30) can be immediately issued to employers for failing to comply with specific requirements.

“In Ontario, we do progressive enforcement,” he said.

Provincial legislation and regulation does allow for significant penalties to be imposed in certain situations, with a maximum penalty of up to CA$25,000 ($19,358) for a person and/or up to 12 months in prison or a fine of up to CA$500,000 ($387,150) for a corporation, according to the ministry.

For example, Concord, Ontario-based Elite Construction Inc. pled guilty and was fined $50,000 earlier this month after two workers suffered injuries during construction of a new maximum security facility. A Ministry of Labor inspector had issued an order two weeks before the incident to implement a plan to manage electrical cords being used on the site, as many cords were on the floor at the time of the site visit, constituting a tripping hazard.

Although enforcement is heightened this month due to the blitzes, the ministry has a broader ergonomics program throughout the year that features 11 regional ergonomists who support inspections and engage in other ergonomics initiatives, he said.

“But we do hope to participate in Global Ergonomics Month in the future and that is the plan right now,” he said.