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Estimates - Labour (18 April 2007)

From Economy Committee Hansard - 18 April 2007

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Department of Labour

Mr. Hart: — Thank you, Mr. Chair. Minister, I have some follow-up questions to my colleague’s, but dealing with a slightly different area. But it is dealing with the review and consultation process that you put in place.

The area that I would like to discuss this afternoon deals with proposed changes to section 489 which impacts with the way firefighters will operate on the scene of a fire. I wonder if you could just briefly explain the proposed change and how it will affect fire departments.

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Well thank you for the question around firefighters. And we know firefighters perform a very important service in our communities. And we’ve seen heroic actions on firefighters, and we’ve seen tragedies such as we’ve seen in Winnipeg this past winter.

The one specific that you talk about talks about firefighters entering burning buildings, I believe. What we want to do is ensure that there’s the utmost of safety taking place. The regulations don’t specifically require general staffing levels for fire departments, and that’s very important. What they do though is require that fire departments take reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of their employees in the work that they do, because the flexibility is very important because of the different type of communities we have and the work that may happen.

So what happens is, where firefighters enter a burning structure, regulations require that they work in teams and that a rescue team is readily available outside the structure. And this is important so that there is backup for firefighters inside the building in case something should go wrong. And quite often we’ve heard it referred to as the two in and two out. And the issue really is, can the pump operator be considered part of the team outside, the two outside, and what that may entail in terms of costs.

The issue is a complex one and again we’ve asked for feedback on that. It is mixed. We know that there are concerns about that and so we’re listening very carefully to that. But I do want to reiterate, our focus is not on the general staffing levels but it’s on the safety of the work that they’re required or expected to do.

Mr. Hart: — So just for clarification, Minister. Currently regulations mandate that when firefighters enter a burning structure, they are to do it in teams of two people going in and two people are on the outside. And this applies to all fire departments, whether they be paid staff or volunteer staff? There’s no differentiation? Or is there?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — It applies to volunteer departments as well.

Mr. Hart: — Okay. And so now the proposal is that an additional firefighter be on the outside — that the pump operator is not considered one of the two standby people — so in effect we’re going from a team of four to a team of five. Is that what the new regulations are proposing?

Mr. Forbes: — I’ll ask Glennis to take that.

Ms. Bihun: — In some cases it would be a change. We are aware of some departments where their policy already includes not to count the pump operator as being a member of the rescue team. So in those cases there would not be a change. They already have a five-person system.

Mr. Hart: — But the change would be that now, if there’s a change to the regulation, all fire departments would be required to have five people on the team.

Ms. Bihun: — Yes.

Mr. Hart: — Yes. Okay. Now in a number of our smaller urban centres, a lot of our rural communities operate on volunteer fire departments, volunteers acting as firefighters, and, you know, I can see where they could be certainly affected by this because sometimes it depends on how many people can show up to a fire and so on. But I think there is some concerns — and I’m guessing you probably heard them in your consultation process — on some of the smaller fire departments where staffing is a real problem and they may not have that additional person to put on the team.

What are they to do then if these changes are brought into effect? How would the smaller departments that only currently can manage to get four people on a team or on the scene of a fire, and it’s required that they have some of their personnel enter a structure, what do they do? How will they be handling that? And what type of responses, in your consultation, did you get from some of the smaller communities that I’m sure raised this concern with you?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — This is an issue. And it is one that as we’ve seen in circumstances, whether it’s in Yellowknife or Winnipeg, where you have the dilemma — and sometimes it’s a moral or ethical dilemma — to enter a burning building and do you have the backup to do that? The role of our department is to make sure it’s safe. So the decision has to be, do you wait until the fifth person arrives? Because you need to make sure that you have proper, safe protocol. So this is the issue in whether it’s three or four or five or six. When do you enter a burning building?

And that is the point before us. And the regulation that we have before us is that it’s best to make sure you have a complete team in place before you enter a burning building. You can fight the fire from outside. You can do many things, but you need to make sure . . . And as we have come to appreciate that firefighting is, well, clearly risky — and in many ways more than we knew 20, 30, 40 years ago because of the new substances that are within the smoke — that type of thing that we’re determining. So our role is to make sure that firefighters are safe and that the processes they use . . .

So I appreciate the question because it is difficult for volunteer departments to have enough volunteers. And it is one that the communities continually wrestle with in terms of safe communities. Do they have enough police; do they have enough firefighters?

Mr. Hart: — Thank you, Minister. The management in communities — the councils and so on — are certainly wrestling with this question I would well imagine. They certainly don’t want to endanger anyone’s life and they want to provide as safe a conditions as possible in the fire. However, they also have limited dollars and so they are struggling with this.

And I guess, I know that some of the questions that they are asking is, what is prompting these changes? Have we had incidents within our province that, you know, in recent times here that have prompted these changes? Where’s the pressure coming from for this change? I wonder if you could comment and respond to those questions that we’ve been hearing from municipalities.

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Well I could comment on . . . I’ve heard anecdotal stories and firefighters have raised this. They’ve raised it on the concerns of, you know — and for them it’s a bit of an ethical question — they know they’ve been trained as professional firefighters to do the utmost they can, and so they have that dilemma. And yet there is the expectation that they do the best they can and we, you know, we do that in our communities. Firefighters are held up to high regard. There’s a lot of pressure to deliver. And then the challenge comes — should I stand by and let a burning building burn when I know what the right thing might be to do? So there is a challenge.

But I would say that it’s interesting, because we see just prior we had the questions around health care and staffing around the issues, making sure there’s proper staffing for health care. And we can see the injuries in health care around back injuries and your colleague was raising that point. And yet when it comes to firefighters we see the issue of staffing again. So we have to make sure people have safe workplaces because of the expectation, whether it’s health care or fighting fires, that they can do their jobs safely.

Mr. Hart: — Minister, how long have the current regulations been in effect?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — I can’t give you a definitive answer on that. I can get that answer to you but I would think that it was ’96 since the last major change in these regulations.

Mr. Hart: — No, an approximation is fine. If it’s around 10, 15 years that’s quite fine. I’m not that precise. I guess my follow-up question to that would be then in those . . . Let’s say if it has been since ’96, have we had serious incidents where we have had some narrow escapes? And if so, how many of those have been . . . is your department aware of?

The reason I ask the question is that I just would like to get a sense of what has happened in the past. I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that I would be opposed to creating safe workplaces for our firefighters. But you know, I would like to just understand, you know, some of the history and so we can appreciate the need for some of the changes.

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Well as I said there’s been some anecdotal stories that have been shared and people who’ve been in volunteer fire departments and, you know, who feel very . . . When you’re inside a burning building and it’s dark and full of smoke, and you’re counting on the two people outside to be there or if they have to come in, that there’s some backup even for them. And you don’t want to be left at risk. But I would say that where this standard comes from is the National Fire Protection Association, the NFPA, and they’re headquartered in the States, in Massachusetts.

Technical committee has developed these standards and they’re meant to be appropriate for voluntary or mandatory compliance to apply to all fire service, whether that’s a career or volunteer or mixed.

And so they have within that, those teams, representation from fire departments, firefighters, consultants, governments, suppliers of fire equipment and apparatus, and insurance companies. So this standard with the impact on this issue provides for a minimum of four — and that’s four on duty, two in, two out, unless there is tactical hazards — high hazard occupancies and so on.

And some of the communities by firefighters are considered to be high hazard. I can’t tell you the characteristics of what makes a community higher hazard than others. And I would prefer to get that more specific because clearly these are standards that have huge impact both in terms of safety and cost. So firefighters in this province believe that there is a need for this regulation so . . .

Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, I can certainly appreciate that this is certainly a difficult . . . you know, an area where there isn’t a clear answer. And as I said earlier, we certainly don’t want to be compromising safety. And I guess I have found that in the past when we’re faced with some of these difficult decisions, it’s helpful to look around and see what’s happening in other jurisdictions.

And I wonder if you could perhaps tell me what the standards are in some of the other provinces, particularly our neighbouring provinces where perhaps our conditions would be, you know, very similar. I’m thinking of Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario, and part of BC [British Columbia] I suppose, you know, where I would think that they have winter and so do we and, you know, and all those sorts of things. Do you have that information? Could you give us a sense of what other jurisdictions are doing?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Well as you know Saskatchewan is a leader in many ways in terms of occupational health and safety, particularly when it comes to firefighting, recognizing some of the cancers that have been caused by fighting fires. And so we’ve been a real leader in that area. I would say that the comparison across Canada, British Columbia is the only other jurisdiction that addresses the specific work procedure of entering a burning building. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario only addresses equipment and personal protective equipment required. And Alberta, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Quebec do not address firefighting issues.

So you can see that it’s hard to believe that some provinces don’t even address firefighting. And so we have some good work that we’ve done here. I would also add, this was a unanimous decision or recommendation from the Occupational Health and Safety Council.

Mr. Hart: — So just to review what you just . . . British Columbia currently has regulations that would reflect changes here in Saskatchewan. In other words, they are mandating a five-person team. Is that what you said?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — We don’t know that right now. My briefing note does not have that information. And I will get that information for you.

Mr. Hart: — Okay. But some of the other provinces, they don’t have any regulations in this area?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Not at all. We have four provinces that do not address firefighting procedures at all.

Mr. Hart: — Okay. Okay. Well at least that gives us something to compare and see how we stack up.

As I mentioned earlier, if these changes are going ahead, it would certainly create some financial difficulties I think for certain fire departments of having an extra person there and so on, which councils have to deal with. That’s the reality of the world we live in. There’s a cost to everything. And I know that any of the councils that I’ve spoken to, they certainly don’t want to endanger people’s lives no matter whether it’s firefighters or motorists with unsafe driving conditions and so on. But there is a cost and there’s only so many dollars.

First of all I guess I should ask, will this regulation change be moving forward? Have you made a decision on this? Because you indicated earlier that regulation changes can happen without legislative changes. And it can happen very quickly. So what is the status on this particular regulation change?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Well there has been no decision made. Obviously there was a recommendation made. We’re going to take a look at the feedback that we’ve got. The consultation period ended the end of March. And so I’m looking forward to seeing the concerns that have been raised, and then we’ll take it from there.

Obviously I know that there are some communities that are watching this very closely, and the firefighters are watching this very closely as well. They see this as an important, important protection. So we’ll proceed from here.

Mr. Hart: — Stay tuned?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Stay tuned.

Mr. Hart: — You mentioned the consultation procedure, and that just prompted another question: did you consult with communities with volunteer firefighters?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Okay. Well I’ll give you a list of who we consulted with: the cities of Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Regina, Saskatoon, Swift Current, Weyburn, and Yorkton; fire departments in the cities of Regina, Yorkton, and the towns of Regina Beach and Nipawin; and the Office of the Fire Commissioner and the Saskatchewan Professional Fire Fighters Association. And we did receive a submission from the volunteer firefighter association.

Mr. Hart: — Of those communities that you had direct consultation with, how many of those communities would have volunteer firefighters?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — We’ll get back to you on the specifics on which, but we know the fire departments in Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Regina, and Saskatoon are completely professional. I’m not sure of the mixture in Swift Current, Weyburn, and Yorkton — what their make-up is. We did also — Bill just pointed out — we’ve been talking with SARM [Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities] and SUMA [Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association] as well as umbrella organizations for these groups, for the communities.

Mr. Hart: — What you didn’t do though was you didn’t contact or ask for recommendations from smaller communities like Melville and Melfort and Kindersley and those sorts of communities which are somewhat larger than the, you know, the 5-to-700 population towns and so on. And I guess my question is, why wouldn’t he have consulted with some of those communities of that size?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Well as I said, we did consult with the towns of Regina Beach and Nipawin. And over the two years that the council did their work, and there was a task team involved with that on this specific issue, that we involved a whole range of communities, a whole range of organizations, so I’m hoping their voice did come out. I can’t say that the towns group, but I would hope SUMA would make sure that they brought that voice forward, so.

Mr. Hart: — I guess it’s rather curious — I can see you consulting with the larger cities, and I think you covered most of them or a good number of them. But it’s rather curious that you would consult with Regina Beach and Nipawin. How did you select those two communities? Did you put all the names in a hat and draw them out, or? It’s just I don’t see any rationale between selecting the two. Not that I have anything against either of those two communities, I’ve been in both of them. They’re wonderful communities. But it just seems rather strange that those two would be consulted and no one else was.

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Well what happens in the process is that when we consulted, we sent out notices asking for feedback and of course some obviously with the staff that they have can make communications back. I would anticipate that Regina Beach and Nipawin would be doing that kind of thing. And other communities felt maybe they would be represented through SUMA or the volunteer fire department association, so I can’t explain why two and not others but . . .

Mr. Hart: — Okay, so you did send out request for information to more communities, and it was based on the responses you got back.

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Right and we also did a press release and some information that went out and some groups would be watching for it. And Glennis informs me that it was sent to all workplaces that had an occupational health and safety committee so . . .

Mr. Hart: — Well that answers my question. Apparently these two communities took the initiative to put forward their recommendations and good for them. And so yes, it’s not quite as strange as I initially thought it was.

Just a further follow-up to this whole issue is your government levies a 1 per cent fire protection tax that the budget document that I’m looking at is forecast to raise about $3.4 million. Now I know this is probably a better question for the Minister of Finance or perhaps the Minister of Government Relations, but some of the decisions that you will make, Minister, will impact on municipalities in a financial way.

And I guess the question is if you’re going to, you know, download more responsibilities or ask municipalities to do more, they would also like to know whether they will be receiving more, and some of them have identified this particular fund. Would you care to comment on, if you should decide to go ahead with the proposed change in regulations, will you also be making recommendations to the appropriate ministers to provide more funding to the municipalities?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — If I understand this correctly . . . and I think that the point you’re making is you’re linking one, and we don’t receive any funds from this. And I am familiar with this. I think it was raised at the SUMA convention, and of course it probably would be more appropriate with the Minister of Finance and Government Relations as we take a look at different costs.

But you know, I want to make two observations. It’s not a downloading of services. Our job is to make sure workplaces are safe, and that’s within our own government, with anybody who works in a workplace in Saskatchewan that . . . So we’ve come a long way, but yet we have a lot more to do and, as your colleague pointed rightly out, that we have some work to do in health care. We have some work to do in other areas in terms of injury rates in this province. So there are costs involved in that, and of course we are trying to make sure that, as always, that funding is as fair as possible.

And it has been . . . There are some challenges we often see, and so I will raise that. But I need to let you know that we view our work here as . . . The priority is safety and making sure that, while it’s reasonable and fair, that no one’s put at risk.

Mr. Hart: — Well just one final question, Minister, on this particular issue, and then I think we’ll move on to another one. You’d mentioned earlier that you’re looking at the responses that you got from your consultation process and you’re reviewing the input that you’ve received. I guess the question that everyone that is watching and interested in this issue — this is a very important issue — the question I guess that they would have is, when can we reasonably expect a decision on this particular issue?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — You’re asking the firefighters?

Mr. Hart: — Yes.

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Okay. Well we have to . . . Again we haven’t made a commitment in terms of the deadline for that because we didn’t know what kind of feedback we would be getting, and so we’ll make sure we take a good look at that. But clearly we want to move relatively quickly on this. You could tell by the fact that the press release that announced this was early February; we closed the window for feedback the end of March. So we’re putting that through. So I think that we will be moving relatively quickly on this.

And the other point about this too is to make sure that people understand that, when we’re dealing with occupational health and safety regulations, they’re never completely done forever because things do change. We have more information. We learn more about how we can have safe workplaces. So I have come to appreciate that occupational health and safety is always ongoing as we discover new areas that we can do better in. But it’ll be quickly.

Mr. Hart: — Well thank you for that, Minister. The next issue that I would like to raise with you is one that is also an important issue. It’s dealing with the report that was done by your colleague, the member from Regina Northeast, dealing with the northern overtime exemption. I’m looking at a news release dated February 20 where the Premier said that he’d received the report from the member from Regina Northeast, Mr. Harper, and he would be looking at the report. There was, I believe, five recommendations contained in the report and yet to date, we haven’t heard anything on this report.

We are getting some inquiries in our office from business people in the North who are asking what is happening here. We are hiring people for the upcoming season whether it be in the outfitting industry or other industries, and they really don’t know whether they will be affected by changes, if changes in fact are coming. There’s a whole bunch of uncertainty, and they’re just basically saying what’s going on, what’s happening. And so I’m presenting their questions to you, Minister.

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Yes. No. It’s a fair question. And of course, the member from northeast did a great job in discovering a lot of the issues that deal with labour standards in the North. And of course, as you would know and we talked about this last time, funding for an office and an officer in the North about labour standards in general and to do some work around the education of standards and what that means in the workplace. So we will be moving on that. Some of the recommendations are operational in terms of that particular one — setting up the office, that type of thing. Some deal with regulation.

And so I think you’ll hear fairly shortly about the response in terms of what our plans are. I can’t say right now because we have not made a decision, but we are wanting to do that fairly quickly because of the questions that you raise in terms of planning. People need to plan ahead, and we’re very cognizant of that.

So again that’s a case of staying tuned for that because it is an important one because we know those regulations have been in place — the exemption has been in place — for many decades. This will be one that will take some time to . . . as we do an educational and compliance approach because as the member from northeast discovered, the North is changing and the role of labour standards. And we need to have a presence in the North not only for overtime but just the general rules that we take for granted in the South.

Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, as you indicated, we had talked about labour standards officer in La Ronge and those sorts of things. And those are changes that the average person in the North wouldn’t be affected by or, perhaps a better way of stating it, would notice those type of changes. But the changes that are proposed and the uncertainty that’s out there are affecting quite a number of people, business people, also employees. You know certainly employees would like to know what their rights are and, you know, whether they’re going to be paid overtime and those sorts of things.

And in the page 2 of the executive summary, I might just quote the one sentence that is in the report: “The strong views voiced at the town hall meetings reflect the passionate belief of many that the exemption is a wrong [and] that the Premier should make right immediately so that northern people are treated — and paid — the same way.” I think that pretty well sums up some pretty strong feelings of people that reside in that area of the province.

The one area that I suppose I’ve heard most recently from, as far as the business sectors in the North, is the outfitters. And there was, in the report there’s one recommendation, and it’s recommendation 4 which the report recommends, “Grant a province-wide regulatory exemption to sections 6 and 12 of The Labour Standards Act.” Now I wonder if you could just expand on that and explain. Is this recommendation a change from the current situation? And if so, what is the change? We’re talking about exemptions, so I think we need to discuss that. What does that particular recommendation mean?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — I’ll ask Eric to give a more definitive answer. He’s the executive director of labour standards and has been working on this specifically. But again we have not made any decisions, so we’re talking about potential here. So I’ll let Eric answer.

Mr. Greene: — Section 6 and 12 of the Act talks about the overtime provisions. Six has to do with the payment of time and a half after working normally 40 hours a week or eight hours a day. Section 12 is the right to refuse to work after 44 hours in a week. They’re two separate sections of the Act . . . 6, the right to overtime after a certain threshold and the right to refuse additional work after 44. The employee can work; they have the right to refuse.

Mr. Hart: — So then if we take this and look at the recommendation, the recommendation 4 in the report says, grant a province-wide regulatory exemption to outfitters. So then that means that . . . my interpretation of that means that or would lead me to believe then that outfitters do not have to pay overtime according to section 6, and that they can ask their employees to work more than 44 hours in a week because of the seasonal nature of their industry. Would that be a fair interpretation of this particular, of this recommendation?

Mr. Greene: — What that recommendation would mean is that the outfitters in the North would continue not to have to pay overtime, and the employees would not have the right to refuse. That would be extended south of 62 so that all outfitters across Saskatchewan would be treated equally.

The regulation, if the exemption stays for the outfitters, would mean that employees of outfitters right across Saskatchewan would not be entitled to overtime by regulation or they would not have the right to refuse additional work after 44.

Mr. Hart: — Thank you. So then if we’re talking for that area in northern Saskatchewan where currently overtime is exempted, if this recommendation goes forward, nothing changes for them. Would that be a fair assumption to make?

Mr. Greene: — That would be correct. Nothing would change for them.

Mr. Hart: — Now but from your comments then, it seems to me that there would be changes though for outfitters in the southern part of the province. Are they currently required to pay overtime? And do these two sections apply to outfitters in the southern part of the province under current regulations?

Mr. Greene: — Currently the exemption only applies to those employers north of 62. So if there was an employer south of 62, the regular rules would apply.

Mr. Hart: — Okay, good. Well thank you for that. The recommendations, so then I guess what . . . From our discussions here, if the report is accepted and nothing changes then for the outfitters in the North and they can conduct their business as they have in the past. And I’m sure that part of it they will at least have some certainty there and that will answer some of those questions that we’ve been getting.

Recommendation no. 3. This says, “Treat fishers and trappers as primary producers (traditional family farm) under The Labour Standards Act.” I wonder if you could just explain a bit. Is that referring to exactly the same thing as the issues we just discussed, the same two sections?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — Are you referring to the fact that hunters and fishers in the North versus the South or . . .

Mr. Hart: — Well I’m just looking at the executive summary of the report under recommendation say, 3. I’ll quote it, “Treat fishers and trappers as primary producers, [and then in brackets] (traditional family farm) under The Labour Standards Act.”

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — I’ll get Eric to give the specifics on this.

Mr. Greene: — Currently the employees of the family farm are exempted entirely from The Labour Standards Act. If this recommendation is adopted it would also mean that employees of fishers and trappers would be treated in the same fashion. That’s the recommendation. Whether it’s accepted or amended or . . .

Mr. Hart: — Good. No I wasn’t quite sure and I’d thought I’d just get your clarification on that. So just to . . .

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — I would say in . . . And that would be anywhere in the province. I think the intention that the member from Regina Northeast is trying to get away from was geographic discrimination as opposed to being more sector or occupational basis for decisions.

Mr. Hart: — Well, Minister, I just . . . having read some of the recommendations just recently here, I think if that was the intent of it I think it’s certainly an approach that is the direction we need to look at instead of making decisions or having a special set of regulations for the North versus the South. Let’s look at the sectors and see. Sectors will differ, but for a location doesn’t necessary mean that we should have different regulations.

And as you said earlier, there are a lot of things happening in the North. I had the opportunity to visit at least a small portion of the North last summer and it was truly very interesting and exciting to see what’s happening there. Just as a side comment, all-weather roads, all-seasons road to Stony Rapids from Points North would be a huge benefit to that whole Athabasca Basin. And I will just add my voice of support for that.

So you had said that a decision will be made on this report fairly soon. Could you define soon? Just so we perhaps have a bit more clarity as to when some of these, a final decision will be made on this report?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — No. I’ll just have to stick with the word soon. It’s one that we want to move on quickly. And I know that with the work done by the report and that, that we are getting very close to a decision on that.

Mr. Hart: — Just a follow-up question to that. In the decision-making process in your government, is this report and this decision sitting on the Premier’s desk or your desk, Minister?

Hon. Mr. Forbes: — No. I’ll just say soon.

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