Health and safety in the workplace are both front and center for Canadian employers and employees alike. There was a time not so long ago when workplace health and safety was virtually ignored in Canada. There was a time when “getting the job done” was the only real focus for employers. The impact of unions and collective agreements by organizations such as the GPMC | NMC have played a pivotal role in ensuring the health and safety of unionized maintenance workers in Canada.

The Emergence of Health and Safety on the Worksite

Canada’s labor movement has deep historical roots dating back to the 19th century. Workers began to unite to demand better working conditions, fair wages, and improved safety measures. During this period, workplace safety was often overlooked, and workers faced extremely hazardous conditions.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought about significant industrialization in Canada. This era saw a surge in workplace accidents and injuries, prompting calls for stronger safety regulations. Unions began advocating for safer workplaces as part of their broader efforts to improve workers’ lives.

The initial precursor to the Canada Labour Code, the Industrial Relations and Disputes Investigation Act, was passed in 1948. This early legislation primarily focused on labor relations and dispute resolution and did not have comprehensive provisions related to workplace safety.

The mass exploitation of workers during the 1960s was widespread throughout Canada, especially for immigrants. Lack of money, fear of being deported, and low-paying job opportunities forced these workers to take jobs that provided unsafe working conditions.

1960: The Disaster that Triggered Change

In 1960, five Italian immigrant workers were working on a tunnel near Yonge Street in Toronto. The tunnel was just six feet in diameter, and the workers were forced to crawl underneath a water main without any hard hats or flashlights. When a fire broke out, they were trapped, and due to a lack of safety equipment and protocols, they died, succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning and suffocation.

This tragedy, known as the Hog’s Hollow Disaster, became the catalyst for reforms in occupational health and safety. Unions led the fight to force the Ontario government to take workplace health and safety seriously, leading to the passing of the Industrial Safety Act. The act was the foundation of the Canada Labour (Safety) Code that passed later that decade and set out laws and regulations for the safety of workers in Canada.

The first Canada Labour Code, known as the Labour Code of Canada, was enacted in 1965. It was primarily concerned with labor relations. In 1966, the Canada Safety Council was established to promote safety in workplaces across the country. While the 1965 code addressed certain labor standards, it did not have robust provisions regarding occupational health and safety.

1972: Introduction of Occupational Health and Safety in Canada

In 1972, the Canada Labour Code was significantly revised to include provisions related to occupational health and safety. The introduction of Part II of the Canada Labour Code, titled “Occupational Health and Safety,” marked a significant milestone in workplace safety regulation. Part II outlined the responsibilities of employers and employees in maintaining safe working conditions and established the framework for safety committees and representatives. Inspections, investigations, and enforcement mechanisms were also introduced to ensure compliance with safety regulations.

“Researchers found that lost-time claims by unionized workers were 23 percent lower than those made by their non-unionized colleagues.”

1980s and 1990s: Amendments & Expansion

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Canada Labour Code underwent multiple amendments and updates to align with changing workplace dynamics and emerging safety concerns. The focus expanded to include issues such as hazardous materials, ergonomics, and workplace violence prevention.

Turn of the Century: Dangerous Work & Pandemic Response

In the early 2000s, additional amendments to the Canada Labour Code were made to strengthen occupational health and safety provisions. A renewed emphasis was placed on protecting the rights of employees to refuse dangerous work and to be informed and trained in workplace safety. The Code also began addressing issues related to discrimination and harassment, acknowledging the importance of a safe and respectful workplace.

In the 2010s, there were further amendments and updates to the Canada Labour Code, with a continued focus on modernizing labor standards and workplace safety regulations. Provisions related to work-related illnesses and psychological health and safety were strengthened.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges to workplace safety, prompting further considerations and updates to the Canada Labour Code to address the unique risks associated with the pandemic, such as remote work and health protocols.

The Union Effect for Health & Safety (An Ontario Study)

In 2015, the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) launched an in-depth study of Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims made by workers in the ICI (Industrial, Commercial, and Institutional) sectors of Ontario.

Researchers found that lost-time claims by unionized workers were 23 percent lower than those made by their non-unionized colleagues. When the OCS once again engaged the IWH to update the research, they found that not only did the union safety effect exist, but it was getting stronger.

The team of researchers led by IWH scientist Dr. Lynda Robson analyzed WSIB data from more than 58,000 companies representing 1.7 million workers in the ICI construction sector between 2012 and 2018.

The new report found lost-time injury claims were 31 percent lower on unionized building trade construction jobs than they are in a non-union environment — a jump of eight percentage points over the past six years. The updated study also found that claims for critical and musculoskeletal injuries are 29 percent and 25 percent lower respectively on union job sites. Interestingly, the updated research also concluded that as the size of the company grows, fewer claims are filed for injuries requiring time away from work, with 36 percent fewer claims in unionized companies with more than 50 employees — and it’s no coincidence that the bigger building trade construction firms tend to be unionized.

The Rationale Behind the Union Safety Effect

Building trades unions and their contractor partners offer the best-skilled trades training, with significant investments in health and safety training — an estimated $40 million annually.  This is in addition to the capital investments made in training facilities and equipment.

The unionized building trades construction sector has more than 95 training centers across Ontario, offering health and safety training and trade-specific upgrade training, funded, and operated by a partnership of building trade unions and contractors. Of those, 39 are government-approved training delivery agencies offering trade apprenticeship training with health and safety training a significant component of each trade’s curriculum.

Advocacy, Education & Collective Bargaining to Create Safer Workplaces

The building trades construction sector benefits greatly from the joint partnerships between contractors and unions. This collaborative working relationship has made the unionized building trades construction sector a safety leader in the construction industry.

Unions actively advocate for safer work environments and provide education and training to their members on health and safety issues. They also raise awareness about workplace hazards. This training not only teaches skilled trades workers how to work safely and responsibly, but it also gives them knowledge about safe work practices, educates them to recognize unsafe working conditions, and empowers them to refuse work that may be hazardous until appropriate measures are made to make it safe.

Unionized building trade construction firms also tend to employ more registered apprentices and have higher journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios, according to their trade’s respective collective agreement. This gives apprentices better on-site training and first-hand experience identifying unsafe working conditions — knowledge that they use throughout their career in the skilled trades. Union workers are also three times as likely to hold a Certificate of Qualification than non-union workers.

More stable employment, less worker turnover, and longer tenure for their tradespeople also help to reduce workplace incidents. This creates more experience on a job site and empowers workers to refuse work that is unsafe.

Unions played a crucial role in pushing for stronger health and safety regulations. Through collective bargaining and advocacy by organizations such as the General Presidents’ Maintenance Committee and National Maintenance Committee (GPMC | NMC), unions were able to pressure employers and government bodies to enact laws that protected workers.

The Role of GPMC & Unions for Health & Safety

The GPMC | NMC has been building trusting partnerships between owners, contractors, and tradespeople since 1952 when it negotiated its first contract at what is now the Shell refinery in Sarnia, Ontario. By the end of the 1960s, the alliance had agreements in four provinces and had expanded into the mining and chemical sectors.

During the 1970s and 1980s, it signed new agreements in the fertilizer and power generation sectors, expanded activities in Alberta, and added new customers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. By 1990, GPMC | NMC agreements accounted for more than seven million work hours annually. During the 1990s the number of work hours climbed to 10 million as new projects in Newfoundland and Manitoba came online. In 2022, the GPMC | NMC recorded 22.5 million work hours.

The GPMC | NMC provides maintenance customers with the highly skilled tradespeople they need to maintain complex industrial facilities. It helps contractors develop pragmatic, flexible approaches to upcoming projects and provides them with valuable information they can use to bid on maintenance work. It offers skilled tradespeople the chance to earn good money in stable, long-term jobs that continue after construction is complete and ensures safety protections to protect workers.

The evolution of health and safety on unionized worksites in Canada has been a dynamic and ongoing process that GPMC | NMC has been a part of since the 1950s. Over its 70+ years in operation, the GPMC | NMC has earned the trust of unions, employers, and maintenance customers by providing stable multi-trade agreements that cover critical maintenance activities. The agreements are tailored to meet the needs of the maintenance industry and feature a cooperative, streamlined internal grievance process.

The agreements adopt the basic monetary terms negotiated by the 13 unions in the alliance and feature a cooperative, streamlined grievance process.

“For several decades now, we have demonstrated our ability to pull together the thousands of craft personnel required to bring these complex and complicated projects across the finish line. We have always delivered, and we will continue to do so moving forward”, states Brett McKenzie, Executive Director of the GPMC | NMC.

“Throughout 2022 and 2023, the Committee Members have traveled across the country and were involved in multiple rounds of bargaining and renewal discussions for several GPMA & NMA Agreements. We are pleased to report that many improvements were made because of these efforts. Collective Agreement changes in our industry have always been driven by market conditions and our Committee Members have continually worked to protect our position in the ever-changing market.

We need to deliver competitive Collective Agreements that meet the needs of our members, our contractors, and our clients. Adhering to our principles and following our long-established processes will provide for continued success which in turn provides employment opportunities for the thousands of skilled workers who rely on maintenance projects to provide for their families.

Having the opportunity to work with International Unions, Local Unions, and Contractors, and being tasked with the collective responsibility of providing the safest, best trained, best skilled, and most productive workforce in the nation is truly an honour and a privilege.”

Canadian Safety Achievement Awards

The GPMC | NMC has been delivering value to our partners for over 70 years through their collective agreements. The organization also founded the annual Canadian Safety Achievement Awards (CS2A). The CS2A acknowledges and rewards maintenance industry stakeholders who work together to achieve exceptional safety performance in their annual work.

The CS2A provides an avenue to showcase stakeholders’ achievements and celebrate success with industry partners in industrial maintenance. Each year, the CS2A program culminates with a banquet where top performers will receive awards in several health and safety categories. This initiative creates a quantifiable benchmark that maintenance industry stakeholders can strive to achieve each year and aims to strengthen the tripartite relationship in the industry to continue the promotion of health and safety as a top priority in the unionized maintenance sector.

Health & Safety Remain Top Priority

The history of workplace health and safety in Canada demonstrates that with strong collective bargaining, union support, effective regulations, and a commitment to continuous improvement, the goal of ensuring safe and healthy workplaces for all unionized maintenance workers remains attainable.

As Canada’s workforce continues to evolve, so too will the efforts by GPMC | NMC to protect the health and safety of unionized workers who contribute to Canada’s prosperity.