OLRB rules on electrician exemption in construction regulation

The Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) has ruled that a worker does not have to be a certified or apprentice electrician to interconnect solar panels using “plug-and-play” electrical connectors.  This interesting decision will have far-reaching implications for the Solar Industry and probably for other industries as well in which similar connectors are utilized or may be developed.

In IBEW Local 530, Applicant v. Gil & Sons Limited, Fil Savoia, Regional Director and First Solar Development (Canada) Inc., the IBEW appealed a Ministry of Labour Inspector’s decision not to issue an order compelling Gil & Sons Limited to permit only certified or apprentice electricians to interconnect photovoltaic (solar) modules and panels.  A worker was injured on a project when he apparently failed to utilize appropriate PPE and to take other steps to ensure he was working in a safe manner.

The only issue in the appeal was whether the receptacle portion of an MC4 Plug-In Connector (colloquially referred to as a “plug-and-play connector“) is a “convenience receptacle” within the meaning of section 182 of the Construction Projects regulation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (the “Regulation”).  The Regulation provides that only a certified or apprentice electrician may connect an electrical device to a power source unless the connection is made into a “convenience receptacle”.  The injured worker was working with an MC4 Plug-In Connector when he suffered a severe electrical shock.

MC4 Plug-In Connectors are designed so that the electrical contacts are in-set within the casings, so they are considered “finger-safe”.  When the connector and receptacle ends are mated there is an audible “click,” the mated connection is waterproof, and the two ends cannot be undone without utilizing a special tool.

The IBEW asserted that the exemption in the Regulation was only intended to apply to low-voltage connectors used for household appliances, for example, and that certain changes to the language in the Regulation supported that conclusion.

The OLRB rejected that argument and ruled that the MC4 Plug-In Connector is a “convenience receptacle” within the meaning of the Regulation, and so the exemption applied.  The OLRB held that if the Legislature had intended to limit the meaning of “convenience receptacle” based on its use or voltage involved, it could have done so.

The precedential effect of the decision could be significant.  For example, many contractors bound to IBEW collective agreements have ‘agreed’ to use certified and apprentice electricians for the work in question.  This would not relieve them of any existing obligations – but it could spur some interesting discussions in bargaining, as unionized contractors may face significant competitive disadvantages against their non-union counterparts.

Moreover, for union and non-union solar contractors, as solar products are developed using the MC4 Plug-in Connectors for other aspects of the work currently only performed by certified or apprentice electricians (i.e. connections into inverters), it may be possible for other work to be performed under the exemption.  For better or for worse, this decision may spur innovation in the solar industry and others in which use of similar technology is possible.

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