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The scene of the fatal platform collapse at 2757 Kipling Ave. in Toronto on Dec. 25, 2009. (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail/Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)
The scene of the fatal platform collapse at 2757 Kipling Ave. in Toronto on Dec. 25, 2009. (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail/Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario acts to prevent worker deaths Add to ...

A "health and safety czar" will be created to oversee Ontario's efforts to prevent accidents as part of sweeping changes to workplace safety training.

The measures announced on Thursday, with the release of a year-long review of workplace safety, are meant to put a stop to tragedies like the deaths of four construction workers last Christmas Eve in Toronto when the scaffolding they were working on collapsed.

Vilshod Marupov survived, but broke his legs and his back and sustained brain damage. Walking is still a painful challenge. He welcomed news of the changes promised as a result of his accident.

"I am happy that, somehow, what has happened to me, it will make a small contribution for the health and safety of other people," he said.

Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, was pleased with the idea of a single official overseeing all workplace health and safety training.

"There's like six agencies right now [that]have the responsibility for delivering training," he said. "But they're not really responsible to anyone, to any one individual. So I think this drives conformity across the system."

Workers in the construction industry and other high-risk jobs will be required to undergo safety training.

"Everybody that will be getting on a scaffold will be trained on that high hazard work," Peter Fonseca said, announcing the changes as his last official act as Labour Minister.

The Premier's Office said on Thursday night that Mr. Fonseca has resigned from cabinet. He is rumoured to be seeking a federal seat.

Bill Freedman, Mr. Marupov's lawyer, said the value of training depends on who is doing it.

Mr. Freedman said that telling workers to wear a hard hat and steel-toed boots, or even how to use a harness properly, would not have prevented last year's accident. He said specialist knowledge, like the amount of weight particular types of scaffolds can bear, is what will help workers know when they're in danger. To be truly effective, safety training must be tailored to the specific hazards of individual workplaces, he said.

The changes were among 46 recommendations in the report on the Toronto tragedy.

Another of the key recommendations concerned a campaign to make sure non-English-speaking employees, who often work in the underground economy, know their rights under Ontario law.

Tony Dean, Ontario's former cabinet secretary and author of the report, said these workers are unlikely to complain about unsafe conditions for fear of losing their jobs.

"You're dealing with severe economic vulnerability," he said. "People who absolutely need to work, they need to earn money. And there's a degree of entrapment there."

The report recommends educating these workers about their rights through posters and websites in multiple languages, and opening multilingual call centres so they can lodge complaints anonymously.

Mr. Marupov, who speaks little English and was interviewed in Uzbek through a translator, thought the initiative might have prevented his accident. He said his lack of English meant he didn't understand Ontario's workplace safety laws, and couldn't use them to make a complaint even if he had.

"At that time I couldn't express myself properly," he said, "because I didn't know English and I couldn't express myself openly."

Mr. Dean called for these measures to be accompanied by an inspection campaign aimed at eliminating unsafe workplaces in both the mainstream and shadow economies.

"Employers that willfully and repeatedly break the law - we need to crack down on them," Mr. Fonseca said.

But the former minister insisted that the more robust inspections would not entail more inspectors, and that none of the proposed changes would require the province to spend anything more on health and safety services.

The NDP's Cheri DiNovo wondered how that was possible.

"Well, if there's not one new building inspector, not one new dollar, how's that ever going to happen?" she said.

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