How many municipal workers does it take to run the water system?
It's not clear, really, though the question drove councillors at the city's works committee to distraction last week. Seems our drinking water operation is in the throes of downsizing, thanks to a whack of new tech - and workers fear there won't be enough bodies on deck to ensure our aqua is drink-worthy.
A key issue is Toronto water services' plan to keep just one employee on duty to run each plant on weekends and after 4 on weekdays. No worries - an automated plant runs itself, right?
Well, actually, no, says CUPE local 416's Bill Guthrie, who appears at the meeting with plant operator Bozena Mathlin to warn of a deluge of dangers involved in automation and premature staff-cutting. Mathlin says managers simply aren't on site enough to have an accurate view of the stressful working conditions.
But water services general manager Michael Price says union reps "are using the business plan as a vehicle to hang their staffing issue on. I have every reason to care more than anyone about water quality," he says, "because the Water Act says that I can be fined heavily or go to jail."
The overhaul under debate is being charted by the works best practices program (WBPP), which began in 1998 to automate the city's five filtration plants and reinvest the savings into upgrading water pipe infrastructure. Since amalgamation, 350 workers have already been transferred out of the department and 30 more will be redeployed after the new plan's start on November 27.
Currently, on day shifts there are between 20 and 30 employees on hand - after 4 pm, there are two.
With the new equipment, Price assures, one operator per plant is reasonable. His colleague, director for water supply Patrick Newland, adds that there are already water and wastewater plants in Ontario operated from a remote location.
But Mathlin reports that at the Harris plant, an alarm goes off about every six minutes. Not all are emergencies, she says, but they still have to be investigated. It takes an experienced operator to determine which are urgent. On one shift, she says, there were over 40 sulphur leaks after 4 pm.
There's also the occasional chlorine leak. Price points out that Toronto's never had a major chlorine leak. But Mathlin reminds her political audience how serious such situations can be, citing Mississauga's evacuation of 250,000 people about 25 years ago. Could it be that there has been no waterworks chlorine debacle because there are at least two people on duty?
The committee then asks if the staff cut contravenes the city's own policy stipulating that workers must be in contact with at least one other staffer at all times - not to mention an Ontario law prohibiting workers from investigating a chlorine leak alone.
Price responds, "If there's a major leak, the fire department is called immediately."
Councillor Paula Fletcher (Toronto-Danforth) is aghast. She and Councillors Adam Giambrone (Davenport), and Mike Del Grande (Scarborough-Agincourt) are visibly moved by Mathlin's account, and want to know what happens if a lone operator falls down a flight of steps and is incapacitated.
Newland's response stuns the room. "It is possible to install motion-detectors on individuals that can send an alarm to someone else if there's no motion for five seconds or five minutes," he says. Wide-eyed public onlookers laugh. Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Scarborough Centre) eventually says such a move would involve problems of privacy.
"This is absolutely safe," says Newland. But he flounders when Councillor Michael Thompson (Scarborough Centre) asks where the alarm goes to and how long it would take for that off-site personnel to get help to the injured worker. Meanwhile, the plant would be unmonitored.
Works committee chair Jane Pitfield declares herself satisfied that water managers are not cutting jobs prematurely. "I guess we have to trust them, especially after Walkerton." She admits, though, that the situation makes her nervous.
Councillor Sandra Bussin (Beaches-East York) comments that "the plants seem too big for just one person to control."
And an emotional Fletcher can't find anything good about the job cuts. She reads Newland from a CUPE report a list of incidents that have triggered alarms, and after each one asks him if it was urgent. He cannot say. She becomes louder and more upset with each query, and eventually exclaims, "We've lost too many good people because of lack of safety for workers!"
She then asks to defer a decision on the plan until the new year. The discussion leaves councillors so thirsty for answers that they agree to defer a decision on the plan until March 2004 - and not before they all take a group field trip to a plant.
But no matter what the works committee thinks, unless it can convince council to reverse the WBPP policy of streamlining, the cuts will continue.
The whole purpose of this plan, after all, is to save money. "The vast majority of savings is from reduction of labour costs," says Price. When fully underway, plant automation should save the city $36 million per year - if no calamities arise, that is.