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Workplace Violence

2.1 General Duties of Workplace Parties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act sets out the general duties for an

  • employer under Section 25;
  • supervisor under Section 27; and
  • worker under Section 28.

These general duties also apply to workplace violence [Section 32.0.5].

See A Guide to the Occupational Health and Safety Act for more information about these duties as well as the duties of other workplace parties such as constructors, licensees and owners.

Employers must:

  • take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers. This includes protecting workers from the hazard of workplace violence [Section 25(2)(h)];
  • provide information, instruction and supervision to a worker to protect the health and safety of the worker [Section 25(2)(a)];
  • ensure equipment, materials and protective devices provided by them are maintained in good condition [Section 25(1)(b)];
  • provide assistance and co-operation to a joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative [Section 25(2)(e)]; and
  • prepare and review, at least annually, a written occupational health and safety policy, and develop and maintain a program to implement that policy. This applies to workplaces where five or more workers are regularly employed [Section 25(2)(j)].

Supervisors must:

  • ensure a worker works in the manner and with the protective devices, measures and procedures required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations [Section 27(1)(a)];
  • ensure a worker uses or wears the equipment, protective devices or clothing that the employer requires to be used or worn [Section 27(1)(b)];
  • advise a worker of the existence of any actual or potential danger to the health or safety of the worker of which the supervisor is aware [Section 27(2)(a)]; and
  • take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect workers [Section 27(2)(c)].

Workers must:

  • work in compliance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations [Section 28(1)(a)];
  • use or wear equipment, protective devices or clothing required by the employer [Section 28(1)(b)];
  • report the absence of, or defect in, any equipment or protective device of which the worker is aware [Section 28(1)(c)];
  • report any contravention of the Occupational Health and Safety Act or its regulations, or the existence of any hazard the worker knows of to the employer or supervisor [Section 28(1)(d)]; and
  • not engage in any prank, contest, feat of strength, unnecessary running or rough and boisterous conduct [Section 28(2)(c)]. While this type of behaviour may not constitute workplace violence, it must not be allowed. If allowed to continue, this behaviour may escalate into workplace violence.

2.2 Workplace Violence Policy

Every employer in Ontario must prepare and review, at least annually, a policy on workplace violence, as required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act [Section 32.0.1(1)(a) and (c)].

This policy is required regardless of the size of the workplace or the number of workers.

If six or more workers are regularly employed at a workplace, this policy must be in writing and posted in a conspicuous place in the workplace.

If fewer than six workers are regularly employed at the workplace, the policy does not necessarily have to be written [Sections 32.0.1(2) and (3)]. However, a Ministry of Labour inspector may order the policy to be in writing [Section 55.1].

Employers may choose to prepare a separate workplace violence policy or they may choose to combine it with another policy required by the Occupational Health and Safety Act such as the workplace harassment policy [Section 32.0.1(1)(b)] or occupational health and safety policy [Section 25(2)(j)].

The workplace violence policy should:

  • show an employer’s commitment to protecting workers from workplace violence;
  • address violence from all possible sources (customers, clients, employers, supervisors, workers, strangers and domestic/intimate partners);
  • outline the roles and responsibilities of the workplace parties in supporting the policy and program; and
  • be dated and signed by the highest level of management at the workplace.

See Appendix A for an example to help you develop your workplace violence policy.

Can the workplace violence policy and program be combined?

Yes, as long as all of the requirements for the policy and program are complied with. Although the Occupational Health and Safety Act does not require the program to be in writing, an employer may choose to combine the workplace violence policy and program.

2.3 Assessing the Risks of Workplace Violence

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the employer has a number of responsibilities for assessing the risks of workplace violence.

The employer must:

  • assess the risk of workplace violence that may arise from the nature of the workplace, type of work or conditions of work [Section 32.0.3(1)].
  • take into account the circumstances of the workplace and circumstances common to similar workplaces, as well as any other elements prescribed in regulation [Section 32.0.3(2)]; and,
  • develop measures and procedures to control identified risks that are likely to expose a worker to physical injury. These measures and procedures must be part of the workplace violence program [Section 32.0.2(2)(a)].

The employer must advise the joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative of the assessment results. If the assessment is in writing, the employer must provide a copy to the committee or the representative [Section 32.0.3(3)(a)].

If there is no committee or representative, the employer must advise workers of the assessment results. If the assessment is in writing, the employer must provide copies to workers on request or advise the workers how to obtain copies [Section 32.0.3(3)(b)].

Employers must repeat the assessment as often as necessary to ensure the workplace violence policy and related program continue to protect workers from workplace violence [Section 32.0.3(4)] and inform the joint health and safety committee, health and safety representative, or workers of the results of the re-assessment [Section 32.0.3(5)].

What is meant by the phrase “the nature of the workplace,” the “type of work” or the “conditions of work”?

The nature of the workplace refers to the physical aspects of the workplace, whether it is a building, construction site, vehicle, or forest. This may include workplace lighting, lines of sight, depth of counters, entrances, exits and objects that could be used to hurt workers.

The type of work refers to the activities workers perform (such as handling cash), the sector of work (such as health care) and people with whom workers interact (such as customers, clients or patients).

The conditions of work refers to other aspects such as hours worked, the surrounding neighbourhood and whether workers move from location to location, work alone or in isolation.

What is meant by the phrase “circumstances specific to the workplace”?

Circumstances specific to the workplace could include:

  • layout and design of the workplace;
  • geographic location of the workplace;
  • work carried out and conditions of work, including activities or circumstances associated with a higher risk of violence (see list below);
  • protective measures and procedures, including security measures, that may already be in place; and
  • past violent incidents in the workplace.

A number of activities or circumstances may increase the risk of workplace violence. These include:

  • handling cash;
  • protecting or securing valuables;
  • transporting people and goods;
  • a mobile workplace (such as a vehicle);
  • public or community contact;
  • working with unstable or volatile people;
  • working alone or with just a few people; and
  • working late nights or very early mornings.

How does the employer take into account “circumstances that would be common to similar workplaces”?

A specific workplace may not have experienced a violent incident, but may share risks of workplace violence with similar workplaces.

The risk of violence may be higher in certain sectors such as health care, social services, retail, hospitality, education, transportation, police, security and correctional facilities.

Similar workplaces may also have activities or work conditions in common.

See above for a list of circumstances or activities that may increase the risk of workplace violence.

Can one assessment be done for multiple workplaces?

An assessment of the risks of workplace violence should be specific to the workplace.

A similar type of work may be performed in multiple locations. However, the assessment must take into account the nature of the workplace and conditions of work. Each location should be assessed for its own unique risks of workplace violence in addition to the common risks.

For example, a company may operate many retail stores, all providing the same services. However, each store would have a unique location, surroundings and clientele, etc. In addition, the stores may have different interior physical layouts, equipment or hours of operation.

So, even though the risks of workplace violence for the services provided may be similar, each store may have different risks specific to its particular location.

How can an assessment be done if workers are constantly changing locations (e.g. mobile workers)?

An assessment may not be able to take into account the specific risks related to the nature of every workplace that a mobile worker may visit.

However, the assessment should take into account risks associated with the worker’s vehicle. It should also consider risks associated with the type of work and work conditions. For example, a salesperson carrying valuable stock could be at risk for robbery.

The workplace violence program must have measures and procedures in place to control the risks faced by mobile workers.

Is the employer required to assess the risks of violence between individual workers?

The Occupational Health and Safety Act does not require an employer to proactively assess the risks of violence between individual workers. It could be difficult for the employer to predict when violence may occur between individual workers

However, a review of incidents or threats of violence from all sources may indicate the origins of workplace violence and likelihood of violence between workers at a particular workplace.

How often should reassessment take place?

The risks of workplace violence should be re-assessed as often as is necessary to protect workers from workplace violence. For example, a reassessment should be undertaken if:

  • the workplace moves or the existing workplace is renovated or reconfigured;
  • there are significant changes in the type of work (for example, more expensive items are being sold);
  • there are significant changes in the conditions of work (for example, closing at a later hour);
  • there is new information on the risks of workplace violence; or,
  • a violent incident indicates a risk related to the nature of the workplace, type of work, or conditions of work was not identified during an earlier assessment.

It is recommended the employer review the assessment at least annually.

2.4 Workplace Violence Program

In addition to preparing a workplace violence policy and assessing the risks of workplace violence, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act every employer must develop and maintain a program to implement the workplace violence policy [Section 32.0.2].

The program must include:

  1. measures and procedures to control the risks identified in the assessment required under subsection 32.0.3(1) as likely to expose a worker to physical injury;
  2. measures and procedures for summoning immediate assistance when workplace violence occurs or is likely to occur;
  3. measures and procedures for workers to report incidents of workplace violence to the employer or supervisor;
  4. how the employer will investigate and deal with incidents or complaints of workplace violence; and
  5. any other elements prescribed in regulation.

The workplace violence program may incorporate or reference existing programs, procedures or protocols related to workplace violence. For example, there could be existing procedures for emergency situations, incident reporting or personal safety.

See Appendix B for more information on the types of measures and procedures that could be part of a workplace violence program.

Can a workplace adopt a program that exists at another workplace?

The measures and procedures in a workplace violence program must address the risks and conditions specific to that workplace.

While a program from a similar workplace may be used as the basis for a new program, it would need to be tailored to fit the workplace where it would be used and based on the results of the assessment for that specific workplace.

For example, a chain of retail outlets could develop a general workplace violence program with measures to control the risks common to all of the stores. The general program could also include standard emergency, reporting, and investigation measures and procedures. However, each location would need to modify the general program based on site-specific risks and conditions to ensure there are appropriate measures and procedures to protect workers.

We have done an assessment and have not identified any risks that are likely to expose a worker to physical injury. Do we still need a workplace violence program?

Yes. While no specific measures or procedures may be needed to control risks, a workplace violence program would still be required because it would need to provide measures and procedures for:

  • summoning immediate assistance;
  • reporting incidents or complaints of workplace violence; and
  • investigating and dealing with workplace violence incidents and complaints, if they occur.

If new risks are identified after the initial assessment, the employer would need to modify the workplace violence program to include appropriate measures and procedures.

How often should the workplace violence program be reviewed and revised?

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act the employer must maintain the workplace violence program [Section 32.0.2(1)].

It is recommended the program be reviewed at least annually. This review should focus on the effectiveness of the measures and procedures in the program. This is to ensure they are being used and are continuing to protect workers from workplace violence.

A review or revision of a workplace violence program should be undertaken if:

  • a reassessment of risks indicates revisions are needed;
  • workers, or the joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative, indicate measures or procedures are not adequate or are not used;
  • a violent incident shows that measures or procedures are not adequate; and/or
  • the workplace’s response to a violent incident or complaint shows the reporting or investigation procedures need to be revised.

2.5 Information and Instruction on Workplace Violence

Workplace Violence Policy and Program

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, an employer must provide appropriate information and instruction to workers on the contents of the workplace violence policy and program [Section 32.0.5(2)].

All workers should be aware of the employer’s workplace violence policy and program. Workers should:

  • know how to summon immediate assistance;
  • know how to report incidents of workplace violence to the employer or supervisor;
  • know how the employer will investigate and deal with incidents, threats or complaints;
  • know, understand and be able to carry out the measures and procedures that are in place to protect them from workplace violence; and
  • be able to carry out any other procedures that are part of the program.

Supervisors may need additional information or instruction, especially if they are going to follow up on reported incidents or complaints of workplace violence.

Other Related Information and Instruction Duties

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, an employer has a general duty to provide information, instruction and supervision to protect a worker [Section 25(2)(a)].

A supervisor has a duty to advise workers of any actual or potential occupational health and safety dangers of which the supervisor is aware [Section 27(2)(a)].

To protect workers, the employer must tailor the type and amount of information and instruction to the specific job and the associated risks of workplace violence.

Workers in jobs with a higher risk of violence may require more frequent or intensive instruction or specialized training.

When and how often should instruction take place?

An employer should identify what information, instruction or training is needed when a worker is hired. This should be done by taking into account hazards associated with each specific job as well as the measures and procedures that are in place.

Similarly, the employer should identify what information, instruction or training is needed when a worker changes jobs.

Workplace violence can be covered along with other occupational health and safety topics, including workplace harassment, or it can be covered separately.

Employers should also identify how often instruction or training should be repeated. This may be done:

  • on a regular basis;
  • when there are significant changes to the risks encountered;
  • when there are significant changes to the workplace violence policy or program; and/or
  • when circumstances indicate additional instruction or training is needed such as when procedures are not being followed or workers do not know about them.

2.6 Information about a Person with a History of Violent Behaviour

The Occupational Health and Safety Act clarifies that employers and supervisors must provide workers with information, including personal information, related to a risk of workplace violence from a person with a history of violent behaviour [Section 32.0.5(3)].

However, this duty is limited and applies only when the:

  • (a) worker can be expected to encounter the violent person in the course of his or her work; and the
  • (b) risk of workplace violence is likely to expose the worker to physical injury.

Employers and supervisors must also not disclose more information than is reasonably necessary for the protection of a worker from physical injury.

What factors should I consider in determining what is “likely to expose a worker to physical injury”?

Employers would have to evaluate the circumstances of a person’s history of violent behaviour and determine which workers would be likely to encounter this person in the course of their work and whether the person poses a risk to those workers.

Some factors to consider include:

  • Was the history of violence associated with the workplace or work?
  • Was the history of violence directed at a particular worker or workers in general?
  • How long ago did the incident(s) of violence occur?
  • What measures and procedures are in place in the existing workplace violence program?

Do I have to tell every worker about a person with a history of violent behaviour?

Not necessarily. An employer would first have to determine which workers, if any, would be likely during the course of their work to encounter the violent person and if the risk of workplace violence was likely to expose the worker to physical injury [Section 32.0.5(3)].

Depending on the results, the employer would not have to provide a worker with specific information about the violent person if the worker was:

  • not likely to encounter that person in his or her work; or
  • not at risk of physical injury from that person.

What information do I have to disclose to workers?

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers and supervisors must disclose as much information about a person with a history of violent behaviour as needed to protect workers from physical injury while respecting privacy as much as possible [Sections 32.0.5(3) and (4)].

For example, the information disclosed should allow workers to identify the person with the violent history and, if appropriate, the triggers of his/her potential aggression.

Only personal information that is necessary to protect the worker from physical injury should be disclosed.

For example, a waitress or construction worker should be told if there is person with a history of hitting workers at that workplace and what the triggers are for that person’s violent behaviour. However, the worker would not necessarily need to know all the personal information the employer has about the person with the violent history.

In workplaces where the risk of workplace violence is similar from many people, such as in correctional institutions, it may be appropriate to provide general information about these risks as part of the information and instruction given to workers under Section 25(2)(a).

However, in these types of workplaces, workers may require information about a specific individual’s history of violent behaviour so workers are aware of the specific risks [Section 32.0.5(3)].

What about privacy legislation?

There may be other laws that govern the release of personal or medical information such as the:

The employer will have to take into account a person’s right to privacy under those laws in addition to a worker’s right to be informed of workplace violence risks under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

In such cases, employers may wish to seek legal advice.

Do I have to disclose personal medical information?

In most situations, it should be possible to provide workers with enough information to protect them without disclosing personal medical information.

In cases where an employer or supervisor feels personal medical information should be disclosed to a worker, the employer may wish to obtain legal advice about possible implications under human rights or privacy legislation.

Am I required to conduct criminal background checks on people in the workplace?

The Occupational Health and Safety Act does not require employers or supervisors to do criminal background checks or to otherwise seek out information on workers or other people who are likely to be in the workplace.

2.7 Domestic Violence

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, an employer must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of workers when they are aware, or ought reasonably to be aware, that domestic violence may occur in the workplace, and that it would likely expose a worker to physical injury [Section 32.0.4].

Domestic violence may put the targeted worker at risk, and may also pose a threat to co-workers.

Measures and procedures in the workplace violence program can help protect workers from domestic violence in the workplace. For example, measures for the summoning of immediate assistance or for reporting of violent incidents could help protect workers from domestic violence when it may occur in the workplace.

Workers should be told that they can report their concerns to their employer if they fear domestic violence may enter the workplace.

Employers must be prepared to investigate and deal with these concerns on a case-by-case basis.

In addition to evaluating a worker’s specific circumstances, employers should determine how measures and procedures in the existing workplace violence program could be used to support the development of reasonable precautions for the worker.

This could involve creating an individual safety plan for the worker while he or she is in the workplace. The safety plan should be developed in consultation with the targeted worker.

In developing the plan, the employer and worker may be able to work with the police, courts, or other organizations who may already be involved.

When a worker and his or her spouse work at the same organization, and there are concerns about domestic violence occurring in the workplace, the employer should follow the workplace violence policy and program in dealing with the abusive worker’s behaviour.

How might an employer become aware of domestic violence that may enter the workplace?

An employer may become aware of domestic violence when an incident takes place at the workplace or when a concern is reported by a targeted worker, co-workers or someone else.

Other indicators could include threatening emails and phone calls received at work or unwelcome visits at the workplace such as by an abusive partner.

What is the employer’s obligation if the targeted worker does not want the employer to take any steps?

Even if a worker does not want any steps taken, the employer may still be required to take some action to protect the targeted worker and other workers, depending on the circumstances.

The employer should work closely with the targeted worker to develop reasonable precautions to address the situation while attempting to respect the worker’s privacy and sensitivity of the issue.

Does an employer have to assess the risk that domestic violence will occur in the workplace?

The Occupational Health and Safety Act does not require an employer to assess the risk of domestic violence occurring in a workplace.

However, an employer may wish to conduct a review of violent incidents or threats of violence from all sources. This may help the employer determine origins of workplace violence and the likelihood violence will occur at a particular workplace.

2.8 Work Refusals

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, a worker can refuse to work if he or she has reason to believe he or she may be endangered by workplace violence [Section 43(3)(b.1)]. However, work cannot be refused on the grounds of workplace harassment.

The act sets out a specific procedure that must be followed in a work refusal. It is important for workers, employers, supervisors, joint health and safety committees and health and safety representatives to understand and follow this procedure.

As discussed in Section 2.4 of this guide, the workplace violence program must include measures and procedures for workers to report workplace violence incidents and for employers to investigate and deal with those incidents or complaints.

These measures can help workers, supervisors and employers address workplace violence concerns before they escalate to work refusals.

Do all workers have the right to refuse work due to workplace violence?

Yes, but for some workers the right to refuse work for any reason, including for workplace violence, is limited.

Certain workers who protect public safety cannot refuse work if:

  • the danger is an inherent or normal part of their job or
  • the refusal would endanger the life, health or safety of another person.

These workers are:

  • police officers;
  • firefighters;
  • workers employed in correctional institutions; and,
  • workers employed in workplaces such as hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric institutions, rehabilitation facilities, residential group homes for persons with physical or mental disabilities, ambulance services, first aid clinics, licensed laboratories or in any laundry, food service, power plant or technical service used by one of the above [Section 43(2)].

In addition, teachers cannot refuse work when a pupil’s life, health or safety is in imminent jeopardy [Section 3(3) of Regulation 857 (Teachers)].

See A Guide to the Occupational Health and Safety Act for more information on work refusals.

Where must workers stay during a work refusal?

A worker must remain in a safe place as near as reasonably possible to his or her workstation while waiting for the employer to investigate [Section 43(5)] or for the Ministry of Labour to investigate [Section 43(10)].

The location will depend on the circumstances that led to the work refusal.

Employers may wish to develop workplace-specific procedures for work refusals related to workplace violence, including where a safe place would be. These workplace-specific procedures must be consistent with the work refusal provisions in the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Can a worker refuse work on the basis of a threat?

Yes, if it is (or can be reasonably interpreted to be) a threat to exercise force that could cause physical injury to the worker. Where a worker receives a threat that does not cause him/her to fear for his/her personal safety, the worker should use the procedures in the workplace violence or harassment program to report the incident to his or her employer.

Does all work need to be suspended during an investigation if there is a work refusal due to workplace violence?

Although Section 43 allows workers to refuse to work or do particular work if their health and safety is in danger due to workplace violence, this does not mean all work needs to be suspended during a work refusal.

For example, if the risk of workplace violence is eliminated by the removal of a violent person, it may be possible for work to continue during the employer’s investigation.

Can the measures and procedures that an employer has in place affect a worker’s right to refuse due to workplace violence?

A worker who has reason to believe that he or she is likely endangered by workplace violence always has the right to refuse work (subject to limitations on the right to refuse work for specific categories of workers).

An employer with a good workplace violence policy and program, supported by equipment, training and effective communication, should have established methods for immediately dealing with violent and potentially violent incidents. For example, an employer may direct workers to call the police for assistance when they have immediate safety concerns due to workplace violence.

Having these internal procedures in place may be the best way to prevent further danger and to protect workers and members of the public (in sectors such as the transit industry, for example). This does not limit a worker’s right to refuse work. However, because the danger to workers is dealt with quickly, a worker may not need to refuse work in these circumstances.

Whether there is a work refusal or not, workers should report an incident of workplace violence to their employer or supervisor. The employer needs to investigate and take any steps necessary to protect workers. A worker may also contact the Ministry of Labour with a complaint if their concerns are not resolved at the workplace.

2.9 Notices

When an incident of workplace violence occurs, the employer should first notify police or emergency responders for immediate assistance. In addition, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, an employer has a number of duties if a workplace violence incident results in a person being killed or critically injured[2] [Section 51(1)].

An employer must:

  • immediately notify, by direct means such as telephone, a Ministry of Labour inspector, the workplace’s joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative and union, if any; and
  • within 48 hours notify, in writing, a director of the Ministry of Labour, giving the circumstances of the occurrence and any information that may be prescribed[3].

If there is an incident of workplace violence and a worker is disabled or requires medical attention, the employer[4] must notify the joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative and the union, if any, within four days of the incident.

This notice must be in writing and must contain any prescribed information [Section 52(1)]. If required by an inspector, this notice must also be given to a director of the Ministry of Labour.

Notices are not required for incidents of harassment.

See Sections 2.4 and 3.2 of this guide for more information on internal reporting mechanisms for workplace violence and harassment programs.

[2] Critically injured is defined in Regulation 834 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

[3] Regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act prescribe the specific information that must be provided.

[4] Self-employed people are required to notify a director of the Ministry of Labour, in writing, if they sustain an occupational injury or illness.

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