The Ontario government has introduced new legislation to eliminate any confusion among the ranks of professional firefighters that resulted from the province's prohibition of mandatory retirement policies six years ago.
According to Canadian OH&S News, under the proposed amendments to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, fire departments are allowed to include in their collective agreements language that requires professional (salaried) firefighters to retire at the age of 60 or older, according to Matt Blajer, a spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of Labor (MoL). The provision only applies to firefighters who are regularly assigned to fire suppression duties. The changes "reflect the general current practice in most municipalities and take into account the health and safety risks of this hazardous and physically stressful job," he added. (WCxKit)
Back in 2005, Ontario passed legislation to prohibit mandatory retirement clauses in collective agreements, though it did exempt the practice for cases where retirement would be allowed under the provincial Human Rights Code as a bona fide occupational requirement (BFOR).
Mandating retirement at age 60 has been a BFOR for professionals in Ontario since the 1980s, but a 2008 challenge at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario served as a catalyst to demand greater clarity, says Fred LeBlanc, president of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association.
"We're pleased to finally see it," LeBlanc noted of the amendments, which had their first reading in the provincial legislature on April 18.
The 2008 tribunal case involved Edwin Espey, a district chief in the London Fire Department who opposed being forced to retire at 60. The tribunal reaffirmed earlier decisions, noting that "the risks of cardiac events for firefighters are significant and increase with age, in particular after age 60. The risk of an on-the-job cardiac event during emergency response is particularly high."
LeBlanc noted his association fears that without the amendments, the prospect of additional costly human rights challenges will continue. "We were saying to the politicians, 'We're going to have a revolving door here with the Human Rights Tribunal calling the same doctors, the same evidence.'"
Beyond cost, there is the matter of ensuring firefighter health and safety, he adds.
Liberal MPP Mike Brown, the Algoma-Manitoulin member who introduced a motion calling for the legislation, says that "hopefully we'll get it through the House before it rises in June." Given that Brown's motion received all-party support, he's hoping the same will happen for the bill.
But there are some observers who would like the legislature to take some time to mull over the changes.
Tim Beckett, president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, says the bill has "good intentions" but it is not perfect. "If this is done based on health and safety principles, then they've fallen short in protecting the health and safety of the volunteer firefighter," says Beckett, noting that volunteers would not be required to retire at any age from emergency duties.
"You cannot separate the full-time and volunteers," he contends. "A firefighter is a firefighter is a firefighter when it comes to the health and safety aspect."
LeBlanc agrees and remarks his association would not be opposed to mandatory retirement applying to volunteers. A few Ontario municipalities with volunteer departments have implemented retirement provisions, he adds.
"The key word is a volunteer," Brown remarked, arguing that they aren't truly employed and thus cannot be made to retire. Blajer makes the same point and adds that "from our meetings with stakeholders, we have been told that age restrictions for volunteers could severely impact or even shut down delivery of fire services in some smaller communities."
The same challenge does not exist for professional departments since the average age of retirement for full-timers is 57, the MoL notes. (WCxKit)
Following a second reading, the bill should be sent to a legislative committee for debate and additional feedback from stakeholders, Beckett added.
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