Q and A: OHS changes will affect schools

January 15, 2019 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: I have been hearing a lot about these joint work site health and safety (JWHS) committees. As a school leader, what is my role on the committee? How would the Code of Professional Conduct apply in matters relating to an occupational health and safety investigation?

Answer: The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act was amended on June 1, 2018, and now calls for each work site with 20 or more workers to have a joint work site health and safety committee. The purpose of these joint committees is to provide a mechanism for all workers to be involved in workplace safety and to ensure that the workplace is meeting or exceeding the requirements of the OHS Act. The goal is to keep the workers safe while on the job.

While this legislation applies to schools, it was not specifically designed to accommodate the unique practices, culture and working relationships of the school. This has given rise to some challenges around implementation of the OHS Act in the K-12 education sector.

Some school divisions have created a joint committee in each school, while others have asked Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety branch to approve a modified model consisting of one central committee for the division along with a health and safety contact at each site. Where a school-based committee exists, it must consist of a minimum of four individuals, half of whom must be worker representatives, including but not limited to teachers. Within the context of the OHS Act, principals and vice-principals cannot represent “the workers.” Instead, these school leaders are deemed to be agents of management with supervisory responsibilities and act in place of school board officials when investigating a complaint or dealing with a hazard at the work site.

If a school division is approved to use the modified model, a health and safety contact must be identified at each school and work site. This site contact must be a worker at the site (i.e., a teacher, support staff, custodial staff or other nonmanagement employee), but cannot be the principal or vice-principal because, as noted above, the OHS Act considers school leaders to be management. In schools where the modified model is in operation, the site-based health and safety contact would alert the school leader to a hazard or a complaint, and they would then work together to resolve the issue.

For either model, the school leader does not select the health and safety contact or the committee members representing workers. These individuals are elected by the workers at the site.

It is important to remember that the Code of Professional Conduct applies to teachers at all times and is not overridden by the OHS Act. While an investigation into a workplace incident or hazard would be unlikely to entail criticism of a teacher’s competence or professional performance, it might emerge that a teacher’s actions could have been the cause of an incident or created a hazard. In this circumstance, teachers investigating an OHS issue must abide by articles 13 and 14 of the code, which require them to act in good faith and to notify a colleague of a potential criticism before submitting it to an appropriate authority. When a written report is prepared, and if it involves a teacher, that teacher should receive a copy of the report prior to its submission to the proper authorities. School leaders should also note that they too continue to be bound by the code. ❚

Questions for consideration in this ­column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at Barnett House (dennis.theobald@ata.ab.ca).

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