Ontario OHSA turns 43

The Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) turns 43 today. For many workers, this important legislation came into force long before they were born, but some workers will remember the days before this important Act came into force.

The Act came into force in 1979, but Ontario had a long history of labour-safety-related workplace legislation going back to 1884 and the Ontario Factories Act. If you would like to learn more about the early days of workplace safety in Canada, Eric Tucker’s book, Administering danger in the workplace, is a great reference [1].

History of the Act

Workers in a UK factory, 1903 [2]

The Ontario Factories Act of 1884 had its origins in the British Factory Act of 1833 [2]. The Factory Act was intended to place some limits on the use of child labour in the textile mills in the UK. Children younger than nine were no longer allowed to work in the mills, the hours of work for children aged 9-13 was limited to 12 hours per day, and children were expected to receive a minimum of two hours of education each day.

Ontario’s history in the regulation of workplace health and safety began in 1884 with the passage of the Ontario Factories Act, Canada’s first industrial safety legislation. The Ontario Factories Act had similar aims as the British Factory Act, with some differences. The youngest age of employment was set at 12 for boys. Young girls were defined as aged 14-18, and it was made generally illegal to employ children, i.e., boys under 12, and girls under the age of 14. Working hours were limited to 10 h/day and 60 h/week for children, young girls and women. One-hour lunch breaks were mandated, and women were prohibited from doing some tasks [1].


Since 1884, some of the significant events include [3]:

1884: Ontario Factories Act
Regulated child and women’s labour in factories, reducing working hours and implementing minimum ages of employment for boys and girls. Provided new general safety regulations, and implemented administrative procedures for enforcement of the Act.

Black and white photo of Sir Oliver Mowat, Premier of Ontario, 1872-1896. Premier Mowat was the sitting premier when the the Factories Act was passed.
Sir Oliver Mowat, Liberal Premier of Ontario 1872-1896

1886: Workmen’s Compensation for Injuries Act
The first workers’ compensation act in Canada, established conditions under which a worker can take legal action against an employer.

1890: Mining Operations Act
Rules are established for ventilation, blasting, manholes, lifting devices, shafts, signals, brakes, machinery and boilers.

1895: Factories Act (amendment)
Guarding is required on dangerous machines. The employer is required to give notice of fatalities and injuries resulting in more than a six-day absence from work, and explosions.

1911: Building Trades Protection Act
The safety of tradesmen engaged in the construction of buildings (scaffolding, hoists, stairs, ladders, or other mechanical and temporary contrivances) is regulated.

1912: Mining Act
New requirements for care and handling of explosives, ladderways, shafts, hoists, scaling equipment, signals, dressing rooms, first aid, dust protection, electricity and worker refuge places.

1914: Workmen’s Compensation Act
The Workmen’s Compensation Board is established with responsibility for worker compensation and rehabilitation.

1919: Mining Act (amendment)
Department of Mines assumes responsibility for mine safety inspection, engineering and 175 rules.

1936: The Factory, Shop and Office Building Act (amendment)
The Factory Inspection Service is set up to do investigations for every branch of the Department of Labour and help enforce the Steam Boiler and Operating Engineers Acts.

1945: Paymaster Mine Accident
The wire rope testing lab and electro-mechanical testing programs are established after the “paymaster accident” in which 18 men are killed when a cage detaches. [4]

The old Paymaster mine (now demolished) that existed on Gold Mine Road in Timmins, Ontario. (Photo: Len Gillis) [4]

1960: Hogg’s Hollow Accident
On March 17, 1960, five Italian-born workers were killed while building a Toronto water main tunnel under the Don River. The deaths of these five immigrant workers shocked their community, mobilized unions and resulted in badly-needed changes to workplace health and safety laws. [5], [6]

Headline, the Toronto Telegram, March 18, 1960. "It was a Hell-Hole."
The Toronto Telegram headline, March 18, 1960.

1962: Construction Safety Act Replaces the Building Trades Protection Act
Regulations for worker safety are introduced to cover the construction, alteration, repair, demolition or moving of buildings and other structures including trenches, streets, highways and wells.

1964: Industrial Safety Act, 1964
This act replaces Factory, Shop and Office Building Act. “Safety” is defined as “freedom from injury to the body or freedom from damage to health.” The employer is required to take such precautions as are reasonable to ensure worker safety. A person with a reasonable belief that a machine is unsafe or contravenes the Act is prohibited from using the machine.

1971: Industrial Safety Act, 1971
Replaces Industrial Safety Act, 1964. Some responsibility for safety is given to the supervisor and the worker. Reprisals by the employer against any worker seeking compliance with the Act or regulations are prohibited.

1973: Construction Safety Act
Replaces previous Construction Safety Act and Trench Excavators Protection Act.

1976: The Ham Report
The Report of the Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines (The Ham Report) is published. The Occupational Health and Safety Division, consisting of the Mines Safety, Construction Safety, Industrial Safety and Occupational Health (from Ministry of Health) Branches, is established, as recommended by the Ham Report.

1978: Occupational Health and Safety Act (Bill 70)
Existing occupational health and safety legislation, principally the Construction Safety Act, the Mining Act (Part IX), the Employees Health and Safety Act, and the Industrial Safety Act are combined into one statute. Coverage is extended to all workers, except some teachers, domestic servants and agricultural workers. It also provides for joint health and safety committees, refusal to work and the regulation of toxic substances.

1979: Regulations for Industrial Establishments, for Construction Projects, and for Mines and Mining Plants, are under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Responsibility for the new regulations is divided among the branches in the Ministry of Labour’s Occupational Health and Safety Division as follows:

  • Industrial Health and Safety Branch:Factories, shops, office buildings, arenas and logging operations;
  • Construction Health and Safety Branch: construction projects;
  • Mining Health and Safety Branch: mines and mining plants.
Black and white image of William G. Davis in 1979, Progressive Conservative Premier 1971-1985
William G. Davis in 1979, Progressive Conservative Premier of Ontario, 1971-1985

1987: Bill 79
Bill 79 adds Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System to the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

1990: Bill 208
Bill 208 amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act, broadening the requirement for joint committees. Establishes certified members and the right to stop work.

Introduction of the Internal Responsibility System

Following the Ham Report in 1976, the Internal Responsibility System was introduced in 1978, created the first Joint Health and Safety Committees in workplaces. Responsibility for worker safety, prohibition of retaliation by employers and many other improvements came in with the OHSA.

Since 1979, many changes have been made to the Act. In 1990 and subsequent years, the evolution of occupational health and safety legislation continued. These changes have strengthened the requirements for occupational health and safety in Ontario workplaces and have reinforced the internal responsibility system (IRS) and the workplace structures, in particular, the Joint Health and Safety Committees.

Under the OHSA, employers have the greatest responsibilities with respect to health and safety in the workplace. However, all workplace parties have a role to play to ensure that health and safety requirements are met in the workplace. All workplace parties have a responsibility for promoting health and safety in the workplace and a role to play to help the workplace be in compliance with the statutory requirements set out under the Act. The respective roles and responsibilities for all workplace parties are detailed in the Act. This is the basis for the internal responsibility system [3].

Continuous improvement

Every improvement in occupational health and safety benefits all of us. Through cooperation and commitment, we can make Ontario a safer and healthier place in which to work.

The improvements made over the last 137 years since the Factories Act are at risk today. Political forces, particularly libertarian and neo-liberal ideologies, are pitted against the social safety nets that are part of modern Canadian life. Political leaders following these ideas, and the ideas of writers like Ayn Rand, seek to eliminate worker protections by bringing in so-called “right to work” legislation that will turn back the clock for workers to conditions like those seen in the 1880s.

The Labour Movement is the vehicle that workers can use to fight these changes. Progressive political forces continue to work to maintain worker protections and to bring wages back to levels needed for a healthy middle-class, and therefore a healthy economy for all. Ontario workers and employers should support the Labour Movement and improvements to working conditions, pay and benefits. A vibrant economy will be the reward.


[1] E. Tucker, Administering danger in the workplace: the law and politics of occupational health and safety regulation in Ontario, 1850-1914, 1st ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

[2] “1833 Factory Act – The National Archives”, The National Archives, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/1833-factory-act/. [Accessed: 01- Oct- 2021].

[3] “The Ministry of Labour and Its Role: FAQs: Health and Safety | Ministry of Labour”, Labour.gov.on.ca, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/faqs/molrole.php. [Accessed: 01- Oct- 2021].

[4] L. Gillis, “Looking back to the tragedy that led to the creation of Sudbury’s rope testing lab”, Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.sudburyminingsolutions.com/news/looking-back-to-the-tragedy-that-led-to-the-creation-of-sudburys-rope-testing-lab-2081079. [Accessed: 01- Oct- 2021].

[5] “The Hogg?s Hollow disaster killed five workers, galvanized a community, and changed workplace health and safety laws for the better. | Canadian Labour Congress”, Canadian Labour Congress. [Online]. Available: https://canadianlabour.ca/the-hoggs-hollow-disaster-killed-five-workers-galvanized-a-community-and-changed-workplace-health-and-safety-laws-for-the-better/. [Accessed: 01- Oct- 2021].

[6] J. Bradburn, “Historicist: Disaster at Hogg’s Hollow”, Torontoist, 2010. [Online]. Available: https://torontoist.com/2010/03/historicst_disaster_at_hoggs_hollow/. [Accessed: 01- Oct- 2021].

[7] “The History of the Occupational Health and Safety Act – Windsor Occupational Health Information Service”, Windsor Occupational Health Information Service. [Online]. Available: https://wohis.org/history/. [Accessed: 01- Oct- 2021].

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