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Key Terms and Concepts

1.1 Workplace

The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines a workplace as any land, premises, location or thing at, upon, in or near which a worker works [Section 1].

A workplace could be a building, mine, construction site, vehicle, open field, road or forest.

The test is: Is the worker being directed and paid to be there or to be near there? If the answer is “yes,” then it is a workplace.[1]

1.2 Workplace Violence

The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace violence as the exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker. It also includes an:

  • attempt to exercise physical force against a worker in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker; and a
  • statement or behaviour that a worker could reasonably interpret as a threat to exercise physical force against the worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker [Section 1].

This definition of workplace violence is broad enough to include acts that would constitute offences under Canada’s Criminal Code.

See Section 4.3 of this guide for more information on the role of police.

Examples of workplace violence include:

  • verbally threatening to attack a worker;
  • leaving threatening notes at or sending threatening e-mails to a workplace;
  • shaking a fist in a worker’s face;
  • wielding a weapon at work;
  • hitting or trying to hit a worker;
  • throwing an object at a worker;
  • sexual violence against a worker;
  • kicking an object the worker is standing on such as a ladder; or
  • trying to run down a worker using a vehicle or equipment such as a forklift.

What if a worker is accidentally pushed or hurt?

Accidental situations – such as a worker tripping over an object and pushing a co-worker as a result – are not meant to be included.

Does the person need to intend to hurt the worker?

For workplace violence to occur, a person must apply or attempt to apply physical force against a worker. However, he or she does not need to have the capacity to appreciate these actions could cause physical harm.

For example, a person may have a medical condition that causes them to act out physically in response to a stimulus in their environment. This would still be considered workplace violence.

In addition, workplace violence would include situations where two non-workers, patients for example, are fighting and a worker could be injured when he or she intervenes. The non-workers may not have intended their violence to spill over to anyone else, but they used physical force, which could ultimately cause physical injury to a worker.

Employers would be expected to take these situations into account when assessing the risks of workplace violence and when dealing with incidents. They would be required to establish measures and procedures to protect workers from this type of behaviour.

1.3 Domestic Violence

A person who has a personal relationship with a worker – such as a spouse or former spouse, current or former intimate partner or a family member – may physically harm, or attempt or threaten to physically harm, that worker at work. In these situations, domestic violence is considered workplace violence.

1.4 Workplace Harassment

The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace harassment as engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker, in a workplace – behaviour that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome [Section 1].

The comments or conduct typically happen more than once. They could occur over a relatively short period of time (for example, during the course of one day) or over a longer period of time (weeks, months or years).

Workplace harassment can involve unwelcome words or actions that are known or should be known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating or demeaning to a worker or group of workers. It can also include behaviour that intimidates, isolates or even discriminates against the targeted individual(s).

Workplace harassment often involves repeated words or actions, or a pattern of behaviours, against a worker or group of workers in the workplace that are unwelcome.

This may include:

  • making remarks, jokes or innuendos that demean, ridicule, intimidate, or offend;
  • displaying or circulating offensive pictures or materials in print or electronic form;
  • bullying;
  • repeated offensive or intimidating phone calls or e-mails; or
  • inappropriate sexual touching, advances, suggestions or requests.

This definition of workplace harassment is broad enough to include harassment prohibited under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, as well as what is often called “psychological harassment” or “personal harassment.”

See Section 4.4 of this guide for the list of prohibited grounds of harassment under the Human Rights Code.

What isn’t workplace harassment?

Reasonable action or conduct by an employer, manager or supervisor that is part of his or her normal work function would not normally be considered workplace harassment. This is the case even if there are sometimes unpleasant consequences for a worker. Examples could include changes in work assignments, scheduling, job assessment and evaluation, workplace inspections, implementation of dress codes and disciplinary action.

Differences of opinion or minor disagreements between co-workers would also not generally be considered workplace harassment.

In addition, any behaviour that would meet the definition of workplace violence would not be considered to be workplace harassment.

1.5 Continuum of Inappropriate Behaviours

A continuum of inappropriate behaviours can occur at the workplace. This can range from offensive remarks to violence. Workplace harassment may escalate over time into threats, or acts, of physical violence. In some cases, a targeted worker may react violently to prolonged harassment in the workplace.

It is important for employers to recognize these behaviours and to deal with them promptly because they could lead to workplace violence.

[1] The term “workplace” may be interpreted differently under other Ontario statutes such as the Human Rights Code and Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997.

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