The Toronto Workers’ Health and Safety Legal Clinic began operations in December 1988. The Clinic was founded by a group of health and safety advocates who originally were part of the Toronto Occupational Health Resource Centre (TOHRC). TOHRC was set up in the 1970s to assist non-unionized workers in dealing with occupational health and safety hazards.
When the Occupational Health and Safety Act came into being in 1978, TOHRC recognized that non-union workers needed legal help to assert their health and safety rights. To fill this gap, TOHRC applied for and was granted funding for the creation of the Toronto Workers’ Health and Safety Legal Clinic.
In the early years, the Clinic’s work was based solely on workers’ rights contained in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Clinic lawyers mainly appeared before the Ontario Labour Relations Board on behalf of workers who had been fired for raising health and safety concerns. However, some of these clients were injured due to poor health and safety practices, while others needed help with issues related to job loss. During the mid-1990s, the Clinic expanded its services to include Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) appeals, Employment Insurance appeals, Employment Standards termination/severance pay claims as well as Canada Pension Plan Disability appeals. To this day, the Clinic maintains a strong presence in partnership with other legal aid clinics and the labour movement to improve workers’ rights.
Also around this time, the Clinic started to offer public legal education by way of oral presentations and workshops to community agencies, schools, job connection programs, apprenticeship programs and employment readiness programs. The workshops take place in the community and offer youth, newcomers and jobseekers with an introduction to employment standards, occupational health and safety, WSIB, human rights and the legal aid system.
The Clinic has developed a strong presence in advocacy for the rights of workers. For example, the Clinic participated in the genesis of the Ministry of Labour’s Prevention Council, and today has an enduring voice on health and safety prevention issues. This has increased the Clinic’s ability to work towards and advocate for injury prevention policies as well as health and safety reform at the Ministry level.
During recent years, the Clinic has worked in partnership with the University of Toronto Engineering Program. Engineering students are tasked with creating multidisciplinary design innovation projects that address a variety of workplace health and safety concerns. These projects are aimed at developing innovative approaches to address workplace hazard exposures, such as radon exposure. Another project examined the use of and exposure to mercury in laboratories.
The nature of work has changed drastically in the past decade. With precarious work on the rise in Ontario, additional resources have made it possible for the Clinic to advise and represent more low-wage workers. To reflect the growing need to represent clients and advocate for issues that influence workers’ rights throughout the province of Ontario, the Clinic changed its name to the Workers’ Health and Safety Legal Clinic (WHSLC).
The WHSLC activities are equally balanced between casework, law reform and community development/public education. Most recently the Clinic has increased its capacity to advise and represent people in other employment-related matters such as wrongful dismissal matters.