Deterioration of Occupational Health and Safety in Quebec

A Call to Action to Defend Rights and Human Lives

The Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) reports a steady rise in the annual number of occupational injuries in the period between 2016 and 2020. The FTQ analyzed data supplied by the CNESST (Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board), the agency mandated by the government to enforce Quebec's labour laws.

An article published recently in Le Journal de Montréal provides a glimpse into the deterioration of occupational health and safety conditions in Quebec, including a reduction in interventions by the CNESST, based on the FTQ analysis. The annual number of occupational injuries, which includes work-related accidents and illnesses, climbed from 90,414 in 2016 to 110,038 in 2020. The number of work-related accidents increased from 82,179 to 94,750, while the number of occupational diseases rose from 8,235 to 15,288. The number of work-related fatalities has remained a constant, at around 200 annually.

Meanwhile, CNESST interventions to protect workers' health have decreased. According to the article, in 2020 the CNESST delivered 1,772 violation notices, the lowest in years, while between 2016 and 2019, they averaged around 3,600. This means that the CNESST let its guard down as the pandemic hit and problems were at their worst.

The article quotes an FTQ prevention representative at the REM (Réseau express métropolitain) construction site, the new light rail transit line that will cross the Greater Montreal area. She said:

"It's becoming more and more dangerous. The work must be done quickly. Companies are functioning based on bonuses, so health and safety don't seem to be a priority for them. Workers are not filing complaints and when they do decide to, inspectors are not showing up. They just call and wait for the pictures taken by the superintendent."

Workers in the mining sector confirm that the CNESST has reduced its inspection activities over the years, its issuance of violation notices to companies that lead to fines, and its notices of non-compliance that result in corrective orders for failure to comply with health and safety standards. In conversation with Worker's Forum, one of them said that big employers are constantly pressuring the CNESST not to intervene against them, and that CNESST management is pressuring its inspectors not to issue notices of wrongdoing and orders to companies to take corrective action.

This is a very serious problem facing workers and it will be further exacerbated by Bill 59, An Act to modernize the occupational health and safety regime, which was passed on September 30 by the Quebec government despite strong opposition from workers, unions and injured worker organizations.

This law hands over unilateral decision-making power in health and safety matters to narrow private interests. Within that context, it grants enormous regulatory powers to the CNESST, particularly in the areas of recognition of what constitutes an occupational disease, medical assistance to injured and sick workers, return to work, compensation, and prevention mechanisms. The CNESST, which is already not doing its job, will be able to bring in and withdraw regulations at will, without public scrutiny, and without even the National Assembly being informed.

All of this is absolutely contrary to a pro-social and modern way of dealing with workers' health and safety issues, which requires that workers' say be decisive in determining what is healthy and safe at the workplace and what is just treatment for workers injured or made ill on the job.

This only heightens the awareness amongst workers of the urgency of stepping up their fight against these violations of their rights.

This article was published in

October 8, 2021 - No. 93

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