Hazmat Apprenticeship a First

Don Procter

February 2009

Ontario is expected to become the first province and possibly the first jurisdiction in North America to have a government-recognized hazardous materials apprenticeship program.

Observers suggest that the timing of the program, initiated by the Interior Systems Contractors Association of Ontario, couldn’t be better. Over the past few years, the province has implemented tough regulations around the handling and abatement procedures of hazardous materials, and it is becoming more vigilant in enforcing those regulations.

Industry leaders support the move because it gives credibility to the field it so sadly lacks. As it stands, the labor force is predominately made up of new immigrants, many of whom see it as transient work—merely a stepping stone to work in other trades.

"We have a heck of a time retaining our labor force,” explains Ted Barron, president of I&I Construction Services Inc. A key organizer in the program’s development, Barron sits on ISCA’s technical committee and the board of directors of the Environmental Abatement Council of Ontario, one of the associations that is developing the framework for the apprenticeship program.

The curriculum will cover asbestos, mold, lead, chemicals and other abatement fields. Students won’t necessarily have to take training in all areas. Classes would be at ISCA’s newly opened 30,000 square foot training facility in suburban Toronto, which was built specifically to train hazmat workers and exterior insulation and finish systems’ mechanics.

Along with EACO, the Ontario Association of Demolition Contractors and the Master Insulators Association of Ontario are key stakeholders in the apprenticeship program. Craig Moore, executive director of the OADC, says in the field of asbestos abatement, eight out of every 10 workers see it as temporary work. A hazmat apprenticeship program would give the industry more credibility, leading to a stable workforce.

One of the issues to resolve for the three associations is that while they all draw from the same labor pool, each association is tied to a different union. Compounding the problem is that fact that there are a number of non-union contractors working in the field.

Barron says the three unions are working on a reciprocal agreement so workers can move from one union to another without losing benefits. It will help ensure a good, steady supply of labor.

So far, the Laborer’s International Local 506 and the International Union of Painters & Allied Trades Local 1891 have negotiated a standard set of terms. The International of Heat & Frost Insulators Asbestos Workers Local 95 is expected to come on board soon.

"I don’t think you’ll find another jurisdiction in North America where three unions are cooperating to potentially share a skilled labor pool,” Barron says. "It’s a huge step forward for us.”

Meanwhile, the provincial Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities set up a steering committee made of the stakeholders to develop a foundation for the program. A subcommittee will be formed to finalize curriculum. To meet provincial apprenticeship standards, the program will run 3,600 hours—a mix of in-class and on-the-job training.

Qualifications for the program still have yet to be worked out. Moore suggests that a minimum of grade 10, rather than grade 12, could be the standard education level because many of the workers in demolition don’t have high school diplomas. If education standards are set too high, potential workers will go elsewhere for employment.

Moore asks: "If you had grade 12 education, would you rather go become an electrician, plumber, steamfitter or a millwright, or would you rather work in asbestos?”

Organizers see a launch date of possibly next fall but realistically expect the program won’t get going until the spring of 2010. The latter coincides with the expiration of the collective agreements, making it a perfect time for negotiating important changes in how the three work together, Barron says.

Don Procter is a free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.
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