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Meaford ruling validates guidance-notes process: OAFC

laura-kingAug. 8, 2012, Toronto – The ruling in the trial of the Meaford and District Fire Department outlines the importance and validity of Ontario’s system of guidance notes that are designed to protect the health and safety of firefighters, says the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC).

August 8, 2012
By Laura King

Aug. 8,
2012, Toronto – The ruling in the trial of the Meaford and District Fire
Department outlines the importance and validity of Ontario’s system of guidance
notes that are designed to protect the health and safety of firefighters, says
the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC).

OAFC
first vice-president Matt Pegg, who is the former co-chair of the Section 21
committee that helps the Ministry of Labour set safety standards for the fire
service, said Wednesday he applauds the wording of Justice Thomas Stinson’s ruling on the last
remaining charge under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) of failing
to protect workers.

In
his ruling released Tuesday – the five other charges were withdrawn or
dismissed – Stinson said the Crown failed to prove beyond a reasonable
doubt that the Meaford fire department failed to set up an accountability
system at a fire in September 2009.

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The lengthy
ruling highlighted the dangers of fire fighting compared to other sectors
covered by the same occupational health and safety legislation, and
specifically noted that perfection is unlikely at a fire scene given the risks
and unpredictability of fire fighting.

Stinson
said that because fire fighting is inherently risky, fire departments that end
up in court charged under the OHSA might rely more on commonly argued defences
such as necessity and mistakes of fact more than other sectors, for example, workplace injury cases on an assembly line
in a factory.

Pegg says the challenges of fire fighting compared
with other industries is the basis for the existence of Section 21 guidelines.

“As
peer-written and reviewed documents, guidance notes reflect and respect the
diversity of service levels within fire departments across Ontario,” Pegg says.

“Fire
fighting is inherently dangerous and is often unpredictable and as such, the
Ontario fire service does not have the benefit of having clearly written regulations
for much of our scope of work. 

“Rather,
we must rely upon guidance notes to help inform both policy and operational decisions
within each and every fire department in this province, as each and every employer
remains responsible for taking every precaution reasonable under the circumstances
for the protection of all firefighters. As is acknowledged in the ruling,
perfection on a fire scene cannot be expected, but firefighter safety will
always be a top priority for the Ontario fire service.”

Pegg
also noted Wednesday that the ruling applies to a single charge and does not
address the applicability of the OHSA or the Section 21 guidance notes to
Ontario fire service. He referred to Stinson’s comments on the need of
employers to protect workers.

Stinson
said his review is “obviously not meant to imply in any way whatsoever that
fire departments should have absolute immunity from such prosecutions.

“The
Port Colborne case [in 1994] held that volunteer firefighters are workers
within the context of the OHSA, and, as such, they clearly deserve the
protections that workers are provided pursuant to that statute. If
circumstances warrant, charges can and should be laid, assuming that the Crown
also concludes that it is in the public interest to do so.”

Pegg
and OAFC president Kevin Foster said the association supports the Section 21
committee’s work and the guidance-note process.