Budget reduction makes ‘no sense’ because prevention office not funded by province’s taxpayers, advocates say
The Toronto Star May 11, 2019
The provincial office tasked with preventing occupational injury, illness and death in Ontario will see $16 million in cuts this year, despite the fact the body is not taxpayer funded and does not impact the government’s bottom line.
The Ministry of Labour’s prevention office budget will drop from more than $119 million in 2018 to $103 million, new budget estimates released by the Ford government show. The bulk of the cuts will impact research projects on issues like occupational disease, as well as the province’s independent health and safety associations, which provide ministry-approved training and support to workplaces across Ontario.
The cutbacks follow a “thorough review of all government programs in order to ensure that valuable programs and services are sustainable,” according to ministry spokesperson Janet Deline, resulting in “difficult decisions with respect to funding agreements.”
But critics say the cuts make “no sense” because the prevention office’s costs are fully reimbursed by the provincial workers’ compensation board and are not borne by the general public.
“It’s not even tax dollars. It makes no sense. It will not affect the provincial deficit,” said Maryth Yachnin, a lawyer with the Toronto-based legal clinic Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario (IAVGO).
“It will ultimately lead to more accidents,” Yachnin said.
Although it operates out of the Ministry of Labour, the prevention office is funded by reimbursements from the workers’ compensation board as part of its mandate to promote safe workplaces. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board is funded entirely by employers’ insurance premiums. In exchange for benefits provided by the province’s no-fault compensation system, injured workers give up their right to sue their employer.
Last year, the WSIB eliminated its unfunded liability, or the difference between the projected future costs of paying benefits to injured workers with existing claims and the money in the board’s accident fund. As a result, employers received a 30 per cent reduction in the premiums they are required to pay the WSIB starting in 2019.
Board president Tom Teahan has said the WSIB’s improved financial position would “ensure we can offer the best health-care services” to Ontario workers. In 2018, the WSIB provided $217 million to the ministry to cover occupational health and safety and prevention office costs.
Separately, the government is undertaking a review of the workers’ compensation system with a report to Labour Minister Laurie Scott expected by the end of the year.
“The reduction in spending in this program is part of the ministry’s commitment to achieving value for money and does not impact the government’s fiscal position,” Deline said.
“All programs are subject to expectations around service modernization, cost efficiencies, and value for money.”
As a result, the province’s health and safety associations (HSAs) will see a funding drop of $12 million.
While HSAs generate some of their own revenue through training program fees, other prevention efforts – like the Occupational Health Clinics For Ontario Workers and the Office of the Worker Adviser, both of which have been instrumental in assisting occupational disease victims receive workers’ compensation – do not generate any revenue.
Ministry funding for both those bodies flatlined this year.
Research funding will drop by $1.68 million, from $8.5 million last year to $6.8 million this year. In the past, that money has gone to initiatives like preventing chemical exposure amongst vulnerable nail salon workers and educating migrant farm workers about chemical hazards as well as reducing violence toward health care workers.
“Those are cutting edge issues,” said Andy King, a researcher at McMaster University and the former chair of the ministry’s occupational health and safety research advisory program.
“We’re trying to get some really crunchy research that should not only inform employers about what they should do, but inform inspectors about what they should do.
“But that’s not an interest of this government,” he said.
Deline said a “small portion of the cuts are to some research and grant organizations due to various reasons including end of time-limited project funding, or programs not aligning with prevention priorities.”
King said independent health and safety research that involves both employers and labour in project design has traditionally been a strength in Ontario, but the budget for it was small even before the cutbacks.
“We have a record that’s amazing. At the same time, there’s not a lot of money there,” he said. “This is really important to workers because ideological approaches to research kill workers.”