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Proposed changes to Alberta’s OHS Code: what it means for employers

Employers operating in Alberta will soon have new requirements to comply with under their company’s occupational health programs. The province’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Code is undergoing its 5-year review and the Government of Alberta is proposing some key changes. Stakeholders are invited to suggest changes and provide feedback on the recommended revisions up until January 15th.  In this post we provide a summary of the key changes your company may need to be aware of. Keep in mind these regulations apply to employers operating in Alberta only. Each province has its own OHS code and regulations.

New requirement for exposure to ototoxic substances

It is well documented that noise can interact with industrial agents to exacerbate hearing impairment. As such, the Government of Alberta is proposing adding a requirement to the OHS Code to help prevent hearing loss resulting from concurrent exposure to chemicals and noise.

Under Section 218(2), if a worker may be exposed to Carbon Monoxide, Lead, Manganese, Styrene, Toluene, and/or Xylene concurrently with noise, an employer must ensure noise exposure does not exceed 82 dBA Lex.

The chemicals above are most common in aviation, construction, manufacturing, machining, firefighting and farming, and are on the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists’ (ACGIH) list of known existing ototoxic substances.

Audiometric testing: definition, frequency and record-keeping requirements

The Government of Alberta is proposing to lower the threshold for what constitutes an abnormal audiogram:

Current Definition of “abnormal” audiogram Suggested change
“abnormal audiogram” means an audiogram that indicates:

(a) the threshold in either ear is more than 25 dB at 500, 1000, 2000 Hz,

(b) the threshold in either ear is more than 60 dB at 3000, 4000 or 6000 Hz, or

(c) there is one-sided hearing loss with the difference in hearing thresholdlevel between the better and the poorer ear exceeding the average of 30 dB at 3000, 4000 and 6000 Hz;

“abnormal audiogram” means an audiogram that indicates
(a) the threshold in either ear is more than 25 dB at 500, 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, or 6000 Hz,
(b) repeal
(c) repeal

If approved, the requirement for baseline audiometric testing will change from six months after a worker becomes exposed to three months after. This will not only be more protective for the employer by giving closer representation of what hearing loss, if any, is attributable to the current workplace, it will also be more protective for the worker – allowing for quicker implementation of appropriate control measures. It would also increase the likelihood of capturing transient, young, and seasonal workers and is consistent with employer probationary periods.

Under the new rules, the required frequency of periodic testing after the baseline and the first periodic test would be annually, instead of bi-annually (current requirement). This would not only provide employers with more timely evidence regarding the effectiveness of their noise management program, it will also cover short-term positions in which workers may experience adverse hearing effects. This change is also consistent with other Canadian jurisdictions as well as American standards (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the U.S.).

The Government of Alberta is also proposing to require that an employer ensure all audiometric testing is administered under the direction of a physician, audiologist, or occupational health nurse to ensure validity and reproducibility of results and a more defensible result. It is beyond the scope of audiometric technicians to interpret and recommend follow up actions from audiogram results. All of DriverCheck’s audiometric testing is directed under a physician and abnormal results are reviewed by a physician who has training and experience interpreting work-related audiograms.

Under record keeping requirements, the Government is recommended audiometric testing records be retained for 30 years instead of 10 years. It is standard DriverCheck policy to retain these records indefinitely for our clients.

Changes to health assessment requirements for workers exposed to asbestos, silica and coal dust

Under the proposed changes, periodic health assessments for workers would only include a chest x-ray every four years instead of every two (currently) for the first ten years of exposure. An x-ray would not be required every two years until after the ten-year mark.

Proposed changes to Section 40(3) more clearly specify the qualifications of the physician directing the health assessment. The physician must have knowledge and expertise in evaluating health issues involving exposure to asbestos, silica and coal dust. DriverCheck only uses physicians experienced in medical surveillance to provide review services for our clients’ programs.

It is also worth noting the proposed addition of Section 40(15). This section would add the requirement that the physician directing the health assessments (and therefore the service provider) give the employer statistical reports that note (without identifying individual workers) if any adverse health effects of workers’ exposures to asbestos, silica, and coal dust were identified and if exposure control measures appear to be effective.

Changes to medical monitoring for lead

The Government is proposing to add two new subsections that reflect the need to specify when blood testing should be completed and the follow-up required. This would help ensure the worker’s health is monitored and prevent health effects from lead.

These subsections require the employer provide an initial blood lead test as soon as possible before being exposed, again at least 12 months after the initial baseline test or more frequently while the worker continues to be exposed, and annually thereafter or more frequently depending on the exposure and test results.

Blood lead test results must be reviewed by a physician with knowledge and expertise in evaluating health issues involved in exposure to lead, and the physician must provide written results to the worker, explain the significance of the results, relate frequency of additional blood lead level testing and the required follow up.

Change to First Aid Requirements

Beyond several wording changes and the acknowledgement of the legislative change from the Ambulance Services Act to the Emergency Health Services Act, the proposed advancements in Section 178(5) include the harmonization of first aid kit requirements to support the spirit of the New West Partnership Trade Agreement (NWPTA) and the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT) with other Canadian jurisdictions provided that supplies and equipment for the work site are appropriate to the work site hazards, number of workers on site per shift and the distance of the work site to a health care facility. This meaningful change will aid those ordering kits and suppliers who can now move to a system of the highest standard kit – simplifying logistics across the board.

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