WorkSafeBC is appealing a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that has thrown into question the workplace regulator's enforcement powers against asbestos removal contractors that expose employees to danger.
The court last month rejected WorkSafe's request for a contempt of court finding against Seattle Environmental Consulting Ltd. and its owners, Mike and Shawn Singh, who had received more than 230 workplace violation orders and more than $200,000 in fines dating back to 2007.
Past asbestos handling violations were issued at homes across Metro Vancouver, including Surrey.
Justice George Macintosh dismissed the application, citing concern that a previous WorkSafe order was too broad and the underlying safety regulations too complex and "voluminous."
Observers say the stakes are high if the appeal fails and leaves bad actors in the free to ignore the laws designed to protect workers.
"If this ruling were allowed to stand then the protection of workers from the number one killer in British Columbia would be null and void," SFU health sciences professor Tim Takaro.
"The judge is saying that the regulations aren't clear, he can't follow them and you don't have to. So that's huge."
The decision was described as "ludicrous" by BC Insulators Union spokesman Lee Loftus, who himself suffers from workplace asbestos exposure.
"This is the 20th century, this is no longer the 18th century," said Loftus. "People have lost their lives. Those regulations and those laws are literally written in blood. We don't make this stuff up."
He said Seattle Environmental's owners were "arrogant as hell" after the ruling, telling reporters they don't expose workers to asbestos.
"Nobody who has 237 orders written against them is doing anything right."
If the lower court ruling isn't overturned, Loftus said, senior governments will be forced to amend their legislation.
Unions and industry groups have already urged the province to impose mandatory licensing for all asbestos removal and testing firms to allow faster action against violators.
Tough enforcement does work when WorkSafeBC brings its full weight to bear, Loftus said.
In 2012, notorious Surrey-area asbestos removal contractor Arthur Moore was sentenced to 60 days in jail for contempt of court after repeated asbestos safety violations across the Lower Mainland.
His workers included teenage girls and recovering addicts wearing improper protective gear as they removed asbestos-laden material from homes that had been declared asbestos-free through forged tests.
Loftus said Moore's jail term "straightened him out."