Labour groups shocked at BC court’s asbestos ruling

Journal of Commerce |  by RUSSELL HIXSON   |   Mar 16, 2016

WorkSafeBC is appealing a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that rejected the regulator’s urging to find a company in contempt of an order to follow asbestos safety laws.

On Feb. 26, the court ruled against WorkSafeBC’s application for a finding that Mike Singh and Shawn Singh of Seattle Environmental Consulting Ltd, are in contempt of an earlier order of the court, which required that they abide by a Workers Compensation Act and Occupational Health and Safety Regulation.

Justice George Macintosh dismissed the WorkSafeBC contempt application against the pair and their firm Seattle Environmental, saying that safety laws and regulations were “voluminous and complex” and that “to most observers it would be like looking through the Income Tax Act.”

Although written reasons for judgment have not yet been provided by the court, WorkSafeBC stated it intends to file a notice of appeal to protect its right to appeal the decision. The appeal will ask the B.C. Court of Appeal for clarity regarding the scope of the court’s injunction powers under and the ability of the court to enforce those powers.

The BC Insulators Union, the BC Federation of Labour and the Hazardous Materials Association of BC issued a release saying they were “shocked and dismayed” at the decision.

Lee Loftus, business manager of the BC Insulators Union, who also suffers from asbestos exposure, was stunned.

“We waited years for the court to send a powerful warning to any asbestos contractor that if they fail to follow the laws and regulations set up for the safety of their workers and themselves – they would be severely punished – even sent to jail,” Loftus said.

Loftus noted that Seattle Environmental received 237 orders by WorkSafeBC to follow the asbestos safety regulations between 2007 and 2012, and 37 counts documented by WorkSafeBC since 2013.

“What’s complex, is trying to protect the safety of asbestos removal workers when the courts refuse to take action in even the most outrageous cases of repeated violations regarding a substance that kills more workers in B.C. than any other,” Loftus says.

“Ask the families of the 60 workers who died in 2015 in B.C. from illness caused by asbestos exposure if the laws and regulations are too complex.”

B.C. Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger said the court decision throws the entire system of worker health and safety laws and regulations into jeopardy — and is calling on WorkSafeBC to appeal and for the provincial government to take immediate action to protect all worker lives.

“This is an absolute shock to all workers — despite evidence of multiple violations of WorkSafeBC laws and regulations and after a clear warning from the B.C. Supreme Court to obey those laws. Today the court has refused to enforce that order and impose appropriate penalties,” Lanzinger said.

“We now have a crisis in worker health and safety. If asbestos removal workers are in jeopardy due to laws and regulations not being enforced, so is every other worker in B.C. Employers who put their workers in harm’s way must be held accountable,” says Lanzinger.

Don Whyte, executive director of the Hazardous Materials Association of B.C., says responsible contractors that strive to comply with the regulations, are bound to lose faith in the system, and will now begin to question the entire regulatory regime.

“Why bother complying, if there are no consequences for non-compliance?” Whyte said.

“You don’t have to follow the orders, you don’t have to pay the penalty sanctions.”

He added that the decision suggests that you don’t need to follow the law if it is too complicated.

“If the courts won’t enforce the law when WorkSafeBC evidence indicates that the laws were repeatedly violated, then where does that leave us?” he said.

He explained that it also hurts the competitiveness of firms that take care to follow safety regulations.

“Are the legitimate contractors now going to start circumventing the regulations in order to remain competitive?” he said.

“Does this decision mean that we don’t need to comply with the Workers’ Compensation Act, or Occupational Health and Safety Regulation?”