Regulatory Changes Threaten Public and Worker Safety

NOTE: This story originally appeared in the National Post. It was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario and IBEW-CCO.

certified electrician working on construction site in GTAElectricians belong to a skilled trade that’s highly respected, and for good reason. As part of a demanding five-year program, apprentices must complete three terms of in-school training and 9,000 hours of work under the watchful eye of supervising journeypersons.

That’s all before they can even challenge the Red Seal exam, a recognized standard in Canada that indicates the skill and competency level of tradespersons.

“It’s important to make sure an electrical system is installed, maintained and/or repaired professionally so no one gets hurt and no one is at risk on a go-forward basis,” says James Barry, Executive Chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Council of Ontario (IBEW CCO).

“If a worker isn’t practically trained and doesn’t understand the theory of what they’re doing, the potential for serious injury or even death is always present. Even electricians with 30 years of experience have to be extremely cautious because you never know who has worked on the electrical system before you and what they’ve done,” he says.

According to an Electrical Safety Authority 2014 report, 148 electrical fatalities occurred in Ontario in the previous 10 years and faulty electrical infrastructure accounts for 700 fires annually. “That is still much too high so it’s particularly alarming that new provincial regulations are aimed at lowering training and safety standards – putting both the public and workers at risk,” added Barry.

water pouring out of electrical cables and conduit improperly installed
This conduit-holding high-voltage cable flooded and caused damage due to being improperly installed by an uncertified worker.

The electrical trade is one of 22 compulsory skilled trades, which means certification as an apprentice, journeyperson candidate or journeyperson is mandatory. Compulsory certification ensures anyone who practises a trade that poses risks to workers, consumers or public safety are trained and competent to properly perform the work. Here’s what is changing:

A provision in an Ontario budget bill – Bill 70, Schedule 17 – weakened the enforcement capability of the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT), which had the mandate of weeding out uncertified workers. This change opened the door to uncertified workers doing the work of such compulsory trades as electricians, plumbers and pipefitters.

Pending changes to the classification of trades may permanently dilute the trades, lower training standards and compromise public and worker safety. This responsibility was also removed from OCOT and transferred to an unaccountable body with no skilled trades background. “At the end of the day, the inherent risk of harm is the concern,” says Barry, who was a member of OCOT’s inaugural Board of Governors and chaired its Construction Divisional Board for six years.

“One must be concerned with the immediate risk of harm if things aren’t installed properly but of equal concern is the real harm that can materialize down the road when faulty electrical systems break down,” he says. “Risk of harm has to be based on an entire scope of practice – not piecemeal. That’s our concern and we’re going to lobby to maintain the integrity of all aspects of the trade.”

Lack of protection for the public and workers continues to frustrate. “Not nearly enough is being done to enforce the journeyperson-to-apprentice ratio, or to combat the underground economy and protect young workers, many of whom are taken advantage of by employers who skirt apprenticeship requirements to save on wages,” says Barry.

Journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios determine the number of apprentices who can be sponsored or employed in relation to the number of journeypersons employed in particular trades. “Ratios are incredibly important,” says Barry. “In our trade, the ratio begins at one electrician to one apprentice and increases to two to one after nine employees but because there’s no enforcement, you may find situations in which there are 10 or more unregistered workers with only one journeyperson.

Adam Goulet, 18, of Ottawa had no idea how lucky he was not to be injured or worse when he was employed as an unregistered worker doing electrical work. “I was more scared of getting caught by enforcement officers. I didn’t realize at the time how dangerous it was,” he says. After two years of working on electrical systems without training and legally-required supervision, Goulet left the company and joined the IBEW, where he found work with a new company as a registered apprentice.

“Unregistered workers are often tied to the underground economy and tend to be vulnerable young workers who have been promised apprenticeships that never materialize,” Barry says. “The lack of supervision compromises the work and carries an inherent risk of things being done incorrectly, jeopardizing the young worker and the public at large.”

This is an issue that’s deeply personal for Barry, a certified electrician since 1994 whose son is now a registered electrical apprentice. “That brings this home for me. I want to make sure my son is safe but I also want to make sure everyone across the province is safe. I’m deeply concerned that’s being compromised.”

He represents 20,000 unionized electrical workers in the province but the issue isn’t about unions. It’s about protecting the construction maintenance electrician licence and the integrity of their craft, an issue for both union and non-union electricians. “If these changes aren’t reversed and if anticipated changes to the scope of practice aren’t prevented, the trade will be decimated, which is wrong in so many ways,” says Barry.

Diluting standards will have a negative impact on the ability of compulsory trades to draw qualified candidates. “Because our trade is so professional and highly regulated, we tend to attract a lot of people,” Barry says. “But that will end.”

He urges members of the public who need electrical work performed to make certain that anyone they hire has their Certificate of Qualification and is properly registered. “The IBEW CCO will not send a worker out to any jobsite without valid and up-to-date credentials,” he says. “We take that responsibility very seriously- that’s for the safety of the worker, the public and our clients for whom we work on a daily basis.”

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