Only two months after coming to power in June, Ontario's Conservative Progressive party acted on a campaign promise to businesses by beginning to dismantle the province's Workplace Health and Safety Agency. Ontario Minister of Labor, Elizabeth Witmer, halted program development at the agency, fired its bipartite business-labor board of directors, and appointed a 100-day review panel chaired by a ministry bureaucrat to recommend a more effective way to address the health and safety needs of Ontario's workplaces. In a letter to the Ontario Federation of Labor, Premier Michael Harris attributed the action to "serious problems with the agency's governance structure." Harris said the agency "failed to respond to the need for a more effective workplace health and safety training program."

Business and labor groups in Ontario have been embattled since August over the agency's fate, to be decided late this month by the review panel. Both sides predict the agency will be shuffled into Ontario's Workers' Compensation Board.

Deja vu?

For now, the agency maintains an office in Toronto and carries out whatever services it can with its hands tied. The actors are different, but the Toronto drama bears a striking resemblance to one being staged in Washington, DC Reports in the U.S. media have compared the plight of the Toronto agency to that of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The U.S. training and research arm is targeted by Republicans for elimination, or at least a merger with OSHA.

Like NIOSH, Ontario's Workplace Health and Safety Agency has no regulatory authority: Policymaking and enforcement are the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labor in the province. Instead, under management and labor vice-chairs, the agency's main raison d'etre has been to train and certify workplace health and safety committees. Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1978 mandated committees in any workplace with 20 or more employees. The agency also conducts job injury research, oversees funding for provincial safety associations and clinics, and runs a young worker safety awareness campaign.

Same old argument

Labor leaders call the agency disbandment "ruthless," and warn of an adverse impact on workplace accidents and deaths. As proof, the OFL cites an 18 percent injury reduction and a 16 percent death rate drop since 1990, when the agency was established.

Employers say those statistics don't prove a thing since the agency didn't start delivering training and certification until 1993. In fact, business groups call the agency's programs a hindrance.

Employers complain that being forced to enroll workers (the number varies according to the size of employer) in certification and training takes up too much time and money.

Ian Howcroft, director of human resources and quality for the Canadian Manufacturers' Association (CMA) says the certification course for workplace committees takes too long-anywhere from one week up to three for larger employers-and costs too much-thousands of dollars per employer to keep employees trained, he says.

Furthermore, employers accuse the agency of inefficiencies and mismanagement of its $62 million (Canadian dollars) budget. Howcroft calls the agency "a complete and utter failure, a fiasco."

The CMA and more than 30 other business groups representing most employers in the province, including grocers, builders, auto manufacturers, hospitals, schools, and utilities, joined forces under the umbrella Management Advisory Committee. Howcroft says the group wants to see the agency abolished. In a proposal submitted to the review panel, the MAC says workplace health and safety committees should determine their own certification training policies and choose from private sector training providers.

The MAC also recommends placing the remaining functions of the Workplace Health and Safety Agency within the Workers' Compensation Board, under a non-partisan Vice President of Occupational Safety and Health.

"Bipartism doesn't work at the institutional or political level. It became a power struggle [at the agency]. We want to see one head to ensure bureaucracy is kept to a minimum," says Howcroft.

Unions say all that adds up to employers overseeing their own health and safety management. They are fighting back. In September, the Ontario Federation of Labor boycotted its two allotted seats on the review panel, instead seeking (unsuccessfully) a court order to prohibit the agency's disbandment. And at press time, labor threatened a one-day work stoppage to protest several of the conservative government's new policies. Gordon Wilson, president of the OFL, calls the safety agency action "the most objectionable [policy] to date."

History of trouble

Labor-management squabbling isn't new to the agency.

The Workplace Health and Safety Agency was troubled from the start, according to an OFL spokeswoman. Business groups were largely opposed when a liberal Ontario administration set up the bipartite agency five years ago to help cut job accidents and injuries.

Once the agency was up and running, a majority of the business representatives argued against instituting the safety committee certification program, and then resigned after losing the vote in 1992.

According to Canadian health and safety consultant Wayne Pardy, who watched the agency's development, bipartism might have been a good idea at the start. But, he says, business felt the agency got high-jacked by labor along the way. The sides became polarized, and the agency was unable to fulfill its mandate. The conflict sounds all too familiar to U.S. health and safety professionals.