Date Posted

January 10, 2022

Rob Dombowsky, Industry Advisor, Human Resources & Labour, AMTA

All employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees. At the same time, workers, supervisors, managers, and the owners as well as all third parties on-site, share this responsibility. In short, everyone in the workplace shares responsibility for health and safety. This principle is enshrined as a defining concept at Alberta OHS legislation and Canada Labor Code Part II and is referred to as the Internal Responsibility System (IRS).

Internal responsibility can be defined as the personal duty of care, in regard to the health and safety of all parties, that everyone in the workplace must meet.

An Internal Responsibility System is a way of sharing responsibility for health and safety between everyone in the workplace. Responsibility is shared according to each person’s legal obligations, which are often based upon that person’s authority and control at the worksite. Because control and authority may not be shared equally at workplaces, responsibilities for health and safety may not be shared equally. [1]

Figure 1.1 Internal Responsibility System: Operational Structure

In the model above, responsibility and authority for health and safety for their jobs must be delegated to workers. [2]  After all, they are the ones that are best suited to address safety issues on the spot. If a worker sees that there is a safety issue and they can fix it, they should feel empowered to do so. If they are not able to fix the issue, it should be raised to a person who can.

At the same time, everyone above the worker is accountable for the health and safety decisions made by the workers below them.[3]  Following the 1992 Westray Mining disaster, where 26 workers died in a mine explosion, the Westray Bill was passed. In 2004 section 217.1 was added to the criminal code which says, “Everyone who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.”[4] This change directly impacts organizations, as it defines the legal obligation of management to provide a safe workplace and legal backing to motivate companies to implement an Internal Responsibility System.

The Internal Responsibility System relies on several elements. First, it relies on open communication through various formats including reports, inspections and discussion. Without this interaction, each party in the system would not know what is happening. Second, the system should be self-correcting.  This is done through the process of continuous improvement and includes work stoppages, work refusals and the health and safety committee.  Third, when discussing health & safety in the framework of the Internal Responsibility System, we are not looking at “Safety vs. Production”. Everyone needs to understand we are looking at “Safe Production”.[5]

Case Studies

The IRS system at work: A driver notices that his tires are nearing the end of their life but are still safe to use. In most cases, the worker can not go and replace his unit’s tires without approval. He would raise the issue to his supervisor who in turn may raise it to the manager and he would send it up to the owner to approve the expense. Once approved the manager would be able to schedule the tire change and the driver would be able to operate a safe unit.

In another example, the driver is on the road when the weather turns and driving conditions become too dangerous. The driver should have the authority to pull over in a suitable location to park and wait for the driving conditions to improve and not need to worry about management disciplining him.

A Failing System: In 2009 four workers were killed and one was seriously injured at a Toronto construction site when the scaffolding they were on collapsed. Metron Construction and three corporate officers were charged with criminal negligence and fined $200,000 plus a victim surcharge of $30,000. Metron’s owner was personally fined $90,000, plus a victim surcharge of $22,500 under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act. A total of 61 charges were laid by the Ministry of Labour. The fine against the company was appealed and in September 2013, the Appeal court tripled the fine against Metron, raising it to $750,000 for Criminal Negligence. An additional victim surcharge of $112,500 was levied against the company. In 2016, a supervisor was charged and convicted under the Criminal Code, and was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison.[6] He was deemed responsible for not ensuring the workers were trained in fall arrest, of which he was an instructor, and not ensuring safe operation of the untested new scaffolding design[7].


[1] Occupational health and safety and the internal responsibility system (December 2021) Government of Alberta,

[2] Dyck, D., (2020), Occupational Health & Safety: Theory, Strategy & Industry Practice (4th ed.), Lexis Nexis.

[3] Dyck, D., (2020), Occupational Health & Safety: Theory, Strategy & Industry Practice (4th ed.), Lexis Nexis.

[4] Westray Bill – Overview, (March 2021) CCOHS,

[5] Kelloway, K., Francis, L., Gatien, B., (2021), Management of Occupational Health and Safety (8th ed.), Nelson.

[6] Westray Bill – Overview, (March 2021) CCOHS,

[7] Harper, L., (March 1, 2016), Metron Construction project manager sentenced to 3½ years in prison, Osler,