The Star January 21, 2022
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the goal is to improve customer service and trim the agency’s downtown real estate holdings valued at $600 million.
The Ontario government is revamping the leadership of the Workplace Safety Board, and vowing the agency will provide “better customer service” to injured workers, and to companies with strong safety records.
The government is set to announce Friday morning that it’s replacing longtime chair and ex-Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer with former Canada Lands chair Grant Walsh. Interim CEO Tom Bell will be replaced with Jeffrey Lang, a WSIB director and owner of a manufacturing company.
In an interview, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton paid tribute to Witmer, who was initially appointed by former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne. But he said the agency, which has been criticized by both labour and business organizations, needed a change.
“We owe it to safe employers and workers across Ontario to do better for them, and we’re going to deliver,” said McNaughton.
Some workers’ rights advocates are skeptical of the government’s intentions.
“The proof really is in the pudding. I don’t have a lot of faith in this government, when it comes to the treatment of workers,” said Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers Action Centre.
Still, Ladd said a cultural change at the WSIB is long overdue. In addition to a heavily bureaucratic system, WSIB also has a confrontational approach to dealing with injury claims, Ladd said.
“You’re injured or get sick at work, and then you’re treated like a criminal who’s scamming the system, by people who are supposed to be helping you. It just isn’t right,” said Ladd. In addition to improving the WSIB’s customer service McNaughton also has another priority for Walsh and Lang: Trimming WSIB’s real estate.
“We know that there are huge opportunities to finding efficiencies when it comes to the real estate. I mean, we have a call center on the most expensive real estate in the country,” said McNaughton, referring to its headquarters on Toronto’s Front Street. While the government hasn’t decided whether or not the WSIB should sell its majority stake in the building, real estate sources say the tower at Front and Bay Streets could be sold for as much as $600 million if it hits the market. Government sources say the WSIB owns a “significant majority” of the building.
The building includes 758,000 square feet of office space in a prime downtown location. That doesn’t sit right with McNaughton.
“We have people from all across the GTA and outside the GTA coming down to the most expensive real estate in the country to work at a call center,” said McNaughton, who acknowledged that Walsh’s real estate expertise from his time with Canada Lands was one reason he was picked as chair.
Another emphasis for the new leadership team, vowed McNaughton, is pushing toward better recognition of occupational disease, in addition to injuries.
“Anyone in Ontario who falls ill because of their job should have the confidence that they and their loved ones will be taken care of, and I mean that,” said McNaughton.
In late November, the Occupational Disease Reform Alliance (ODRA) called on the government to address what it called “a crying need” for better recognition of diseases caused by workplace exposure. In particular, the ODRA demanded recognition of occupational diseases when it “exceeds the level out in the community.”
The change follows a move in late October by the government to introduce legislation allowing the WSIB to return part of a $6.1 billion surplus to employers with clean accident records.
The move to give roughly half the surplus back to employers was applauded by business lobby groups, but slammed by workers’ rights advocates and unions.
“These surpluses truly belong to workers and should be used to improve the plight of injured workers who were made sick by the conditions allowed to exist in the very same workplaces owned by the employers who will win a windfall of money. And this is outrageous,” said the ODRA’s Sue James in a November press release.
McNaughton, who has met with families of workers who were injured or killed on the job, urged Walsh and Lang to do the same.