Northern Exposure

Expansive Interpretations of Occupational Health and Safety Laws Changing

By Rosalind Cooper

Recently, courts across Canada seem to be expanding the application and coverage of occupational health and safety legislation, providing broad and liberal interpretations of legislation. But that may be changing. The decision in Ontario (Ministry of Labour) v. Sheehan’s Truck Centre Inc. is being welcomed by many as an indication that the protective purpose of the regulatory scheme cannot override the actual words used in the legislation.

Employee run over
A company that owned and operated a highway tractor-truck sales business offered units for sale in its parking lot. While the company was expanding the parking lot, four employees were directed to move a number of the trucks in the parking lot from one area to another. The movement was required to facilitate paving work relating to the expansion.

One of the employees attempted to move a 25-foot-long truck, which was designed to attach to a cargo trailer. While the driver was attempting to back it up, it got stuck.  Another employee approached the first and told him that he would clear the obstructing aggregate from behind the truck. It appears that the driver misunderstood because while the second employee was clearing the obstruction, the driver reversed the truck and drove over the worker causing him serious injury.


The Ontario Ministry of Labour laid charges under the Industrial Regulations pursuant to a section that requires a signaller when a driver doesn’t have a full view of the intended path of travel. This provision states “when the operator of a vehicle, mobile equipment, crane or similar material handling equipment does not have full view of the intended path of travel of the vehicle, mobile equipment, crane or similar material handling equipment or its load, the vehicle, mobile equipment, crane or similar material handling equipment shall only be operated as directed by a signaller.”

Lower court decisions
The company argued at trial that a signaller wasn’t required because the vehicle in question had to be related to “material handling” and in this case, it was not. The trial judge agreed that the truck unit was not a “vehicle or material handling equipment” within the meaning of the regulation and found the company not guilty.

The government appealed the trial judge’s decision, arguing that the provision applied to all vehicles used in industrial establishments, whether they constituted “material handling equipment” or not. They argued that the issue was whether the operator of the vehicle had a blind spot preventing a full view of the vehicle’s intended path of travel.

The appeal judge agreed with the government and said that the vehicle didn’t have to be involved in actual handling of materials at the time. In the judge’s view, because the intended use of the truck was for material handling once the trailer was attached to it, it fell within the relevant section, and a signaller was required.

Court of Appeal decision

The company appealed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. The Court of Appeal agreed with the first judge, that the regulations do not apply to road vehicles in industrial establishments that are not typically or actually used to handle materials.

Important for employers, the Court of Appeal discussed several recent decisions in the occupational health and safety context where courts generously interpreted the statute and the regulations. In spite of these decisions, the Court of Appeal said that the protective purpose of the legislative scheme is not the “only consideration when attempting to ascertain the scope” of specific legislative provisions.

Instead, the words in the legislation must be “interpreted in the entire context in which they are used and in accordance with their grammatical and ordinary sense, having regard to the purpose of the regulation and the act as a whole.

Words have meaning

This decision confirms that the wording of occupational health and safety legislation must be carefully scrutinized. It is not appropriate to allow a liberal and expansive interpretation of such wording on the basis that it is necessary to achieve the public policy purposes of such legislation. Instead, the actual words of the legislation should be considered and applied.

Given this is a Court of Appeal decision, it will likely affect how courts in other Canadian provinces apply their occupational health and safety legislation.