Late last year a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada rendered a much-anticipated decision, holding that it is reasonable to interpret the workplace inspection obligation under Part II of the Canada Labour Code (the Code) as being limited to parts of the workplace over which an employer has control. In so doing, the court overturned the Federal Court of Appeal’s 2017 decision, and reinstated the decision made by the appeals officer back in 2014.
This case originated from a complaint to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (now Employment and Social Development Canada) alleging the local joint health and safety committee at Canada Post’s Burlington depot failed to comply with the Code’s mandatory health and safety obligations by limiting its workplace inspections to the Burlington depot building. The complaint stated the safety inspections should have also included letter carrier routes and locations where mail is delivered (points of call).
Workplace inspection obligation under Part II of the Code
Paragraph 125(1)(z.12) under Part II the Code requires employers to have every part of the workplace inspected at least once a year:
125 (1) Without restricting the generality of section 124, every employer shall, in respect of every workplace controlled by the employer and, in respect of every work activity carried out by an employee in a workplace that is not controlled by the employer, to the extent that the employer controls the activity,
(z.12) ensure that the workplace committee or the health and safety representative inspects each month all or part of the workplace, so that every part of the workplace is inspected at least once each year
A health and safety officer found Canada Post had failed to comply with its workplace inspection obligation under paragraph 125(1)(z.12).
On appeal to the Occupational Health and Safety Tribunal Canada, the appeals officer rescinded the contravention and found the obligation only applied to the parts of the workplace over which Canada Post had control, which did not include letter carrier routes and points of call. The appeals officer based his decision on recognizing that the purpose of the workplace inspection obligation is to identify and fix hazards and control over the workplace is necessary for this purpose.
The Federal Court upheld the appeals officer’s decision, but Federal Court of Appeal subsequently overturned the Federal Court’s decision.
The Supreme Court of Canada decision
A 7-2 majority of the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision and restored the appeals officer’s decision.
Applying the framework for judicial review recently set out in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, the Supreme Court found that the standard of review is reasonableness and the appeals officer’s interpretation of subsection 125(1)(z.12) is reasonable.
The court found the appeals officer’s interpretation was based on internally coherent reasoning. Specifically, the court held that the appeals officer’s decision was not rendered unreasonable by, on the one hand, recognizing that Canada Post through its internal policies seeks to identify and resolve hazards for letter carriers, while also concluding Canada Post does not have the capacity to ensure all areas of the workplace outside the physical Canada Post building are inspected annually. The court found the appeals officer’s reasoning demonstrates his in-depth understanding of the ways in which Canada Post fulfills the purpose of the Code, bearing in mind the practical limitations of a workplace spanning 72 million kilometres of postal routes.
The court also found that the appeals officer’s interpretation was defensible in light of the relevant legal and factual constraints. According to the court, the officer’s focus on practical implications did not supplant the need to ensure consistency with the text, context and purpose of the provision, but rather enriched and elevated the interpretive exercise.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case is important as it circumscribes the scope of the workplace for Part II purposes in a practical and reasonable manner. Certainly, the ruling opens the door to limiting the scope of specific workplace obligations of employers under Part II of the Code to only parts of the workplace over which employers have control. Specifically, for employers whose employees work outside the traditional workplace, this decision is a reminder that although employers must adhere to the Code’s onerous occupational health and safety obligations, the application of these legal requirements is not limitless, and consequently does not extend to unreasonable and impracticable circumstances.
However, it can be expected that because every workplace is different, efforts will be made to distinguish this case from others where similar issues are advanced and the parameters of the workplace become a central issue in dispute. Looking onwards, we will keep you updated as this area of the law continues to quickly evolve.