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Changing Definitions of “Worker” Under Health and Safety Laws | The HR Space

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Labour, Employment and Human Rights Bulletin

On November 20, 2014, the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014 came into effect in Ontario. It broadened the definition of "worker" under the Occupational Health and Safety Act ("OHSA"). The broadened definition is consistent with a trend across Canada.

Before tackling the significance of this broadened definition, it is important to understand that all definitions in the governing legislation are important. Knowing how the legislation defines parties may be the difference between legal compliance and non-compliance, and the potential for fines or penalties for established contraventions.

So, if you own or operate an organization and are in business, perhaps manufacturing widgets or providing a service to others, you likely have employees or workers. Some workers may be paid and others may be students or trainees who have elected to work without pay, but for experience. You need to know how this broadened definition affects your duties and responsibilities under the OHSA as an employer or supervisor. Previously under the OHSA, only workers who performed work or supplied a service for monetary compensation were considered workers. Meaning, workers who were not monetarily compensated were not covered under the OHSA.

The new definition of "worker" under the OHSA[1] would be applicable for any one falling within one of the following five categories:

  1. A person who performs work or supplies services for monetary compensation.
  2. A secondary school student who performs work or supplies services for no monetary compensation under a work experience program authorized by the school board that operates the school in which the student is enrolled.
  3. A person who performs work or supplies services for no monetary compensation under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology, university or other post-secondary institution.
  4. A person who receives training from an employer, but who under the Employment Standards Act, 2000, is not an employee for the purposes of that Act because the conditions set out in subsection 1(2) of that Act have been met.
  5. Such other persons as may be prescribed who perform work or supply services to an employer for no monetary compensation.

This expanded definition provides the same rights under the OHSA to all such workers, whether paid or unpaid. But, with these rights follows the responsibility for every worker, paid or unpaid, to know their duties under the OHSA, and for employers to ensure that every worker is instructed, informed and supervised in order to protect their health and safety.

While this expanded definition of worker may be new to Ontario, it is not new to other provinces. The definition for worker in the provinces of Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia includes anyone who may be a student or someone working without compensation carrying out work on behalf of an employer. Provinces such as Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, for example, currently do not cover unpaid interns under their Workers Compensation or Occupational Health and Safety Act.

No matter what provincial legislation your business may fall under, the leading practice for employers should be to ensure that all workers, paid or unpaid, are treated the same in the workplace from a health and safety perspective. Every worker should be instructed of any potential or actual hazards in the workplace and provided the means to protect not only their own health and safety, but the safety of all workers. Any workplace that does not train all workers in health and safety protection is not a safe workplace and possibly has a poor safety culture. A poor safety culture can create poor morale among workers, high accident rates and potentially high severity rates.

Treat all workers equally. Train them in the hazards within your workplace, how to identify and control hazards and your organization will achieve not only legal compliance, but a good safety culture and happy workforce. 

[1] Stronger Workplaces for Stronger Economy Act, 2014, Chapter S.O. 2014 c. 10, Schedule 4

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