I was recently out with a client who asked me to comment on a new initiative a supervisor had implemented in the office area of an industrial production plant. The supervisor felt that the workers were not getting enough done, chatting too much, running around the office more than getting the needed work done at their desks, etc. The supervisor decided to implement a new office rest breaks initiative that required all office staff to be at their desks and working from the start of shift (i.e., 8 am) to 1 pm. They were only allowed to leave their workstations for washroom and lunch breaks. All away from desk activities (filing, mail, etc.) were to be handled after 1 pm. My client knew this was a poor work practice but wanted stronger evidence that his opinion that, “This is stupid and does not make any sense.”
My answer naturally started with an examination of legislation as it relates to office work breaks. Obviously, if legislation details how rest breaks should occur, the supervisor would have to follow it. We cracked open the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). I showed him to section 24 from the Health Care and Residential Facilities Regulation:
“24. If a worker is required to use a video display terminal for a continuous period of 1 hour or more, the worker shall have at least five minutes of time free from such work in every hour.”
Of course, the counter-argument to this is obvious, “This does not matter, we are not a healthcare facility, so it does not apply.” While the inability for word for word enforcement of this is true, industrial (or any other) employer or supervisor could still be charged for not providing a 5-minute or similar break schedule under the general duty clause of the OHSA:
“25 (2)(h) or 27(2)(c). take every precaution reasonable to the circumstances for the protection of a worker.”
Ah yes, the vaguest, general and all-encompassing statement written into legislation. Not to mention probably most highly cited section of in the Act when it comes to orders, fines, and convictions. It is designed to encompass and enforce the best-known information on a topic even when not written into particular legislation. In this case, because other legislation states it, it could be interpreted as ‘known information and therefore a reasonable precaution’ so, therefore, it should be followed.
Next comes surfing through the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) website to find some direction from those who enforce health and safety. If they expect office rest breaks, you can be sure they will enforce it like it was law. It is well-known that the MOL has in recent years has placed significant emphasis on reducing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) through the sprains and strains campaigns. The MOL has lots of information available about ergonomics on the website and has written several ergonomic guidelines including one on office work breaks. In the document, the 5-minute break every hour for intense computer operation is re-emphasized. It further implies this is enforceable under the general duty clause by stating:
“it is open to an inspector to consider that this (a 5-minute break every hour) represents a reasonable precaution to protect the health and safety of workers.”
Examining specific legislation from the Health Care and Residential Facilities Regulation, general duty clause of the OHSA and the MOL guideline on office rest breaks provided stronger evidence than my client’s opinion. Further, a biomechanical explanation was provided to understand better why this is beneficial. Research indicates that the longer and lower tissue tolerance decreases, the slower and longer it takes to recover. Therefore, shorter more frequent rest breaks are encouraged.
This led the client to understand two important things, first that legislation from one sector can be enforced on an unrelated one to address a lack of specific regulation, and second there is both legislative and research precedence to support the need for frequency short breaks for office workers.