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Part III.0.I: Workplace Violence and Workplace Harassment

  • Revised: March 20, 2015
  • Content last reviewed: March 2015
  • Also available in Spanish [PDF, 729 Kb / 82 pages ]

Disclaimer: This resource has been prepared to help the workplace parties understand some of their obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and regulations. It is not legal advice. It is not intended to replace the OHSA or the regulations. For further information please see full disclaimer.

This section outlines the workplace violence and workplace harassment provisions of the Act. More detailed information is available in the Ministry of Labour’s Workplace Violence and Harassment: Understanding the Law, available from ServiceOntario Publications and on the Ministry of Labour internet website.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) sets out the duties of workplace parties in respect of workplace violence and workplace harassment. Violence or harassment in the workplace may originate from anyone the worker comes into contact with in a workplace, such as a client, a customer, a student, a patient, a co-worker, an employer, or a supervisor. Or the person may be someone with no formal connection to the workplace, such as a stranger or a domestic/intimate partner, who brings violence or harassment into the workplace.

A continuum of inappropriate behaviors can occur at the workplace. This can range from offensive remarks to violence.

It is important for employers to recognize and address these unwanted behaviors early because they could lead to workplace violence. The Criminal Code deals with matters such as violent acts, threats and behaviours, such as stalking. The police should be contacted in these situations. Harassment may also be a matter that falls under Ontario's Human Rights Code.

The following are key requirements of the Act, with respect to workplace violence and workplace harassment.

Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is defined in the Act as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” 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 behaviors, against a worker or group of workers in the workplace that are unwelcome.

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.”

The Ontario Human Rights Code is administered by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Workplace Violence

Workplace violence is defined in the OHSA as the exercise or attempted exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker, or a statement or behaviour that it is reasonable for a worker to interpret as a threat to exercise physical force against the worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker. This definition of workplace violence is broad enough to include acts that would constitute offences under Canada's Criminal Code.

Policies

All employers, who are subject to the OHSA, must prepare policies with respect to workplace violence and workplace harassment and review them at least once a year [subsection 32.0.1(1)].

In a workplace where there are six or more regularly employed workers, the policies are required to be in writing and posted in the workplace where workers are likely to see them [subsections 32.0.1(2) and (3)].

Programs

Employers must set up programs to implement the policies [subsection 32.02(1)]. A workplace violence program must include the following:

  • measures and procedures to control risks identified in an assessment of risks
  • measures and procedures for workers to report incidents of workplace violence
  • measures and procedures for summoning immediate assistance, and
  • how the employer will investigate and deal with incidents or complaints.

A workplace harassment program must include measures and procedures for workers to report incidents of workplace harassment, and set out how the employer will investigate and deal with incidents or complaints [subsection 32.0.6(2)].

Specific Duties Regarding Provision of Information and Instruction on Workplace Violence

Under the OHSA, an employer must provide appropriate information and instruction to workers on the contents of the workplace violence policy and program [subsection 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.

Assessment of Risks for 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 [subsection 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 [subsection 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 [clause 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 [clause 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 [clause 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 [subsection 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 [subsection 32.0.3(5)].

Please note that an assessment of the risks of workplace violence should be specific to the workplace.

The 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.

Domestic Violence

Employers who are aware of, or who ought reasonably to be aware of, domestic violence that would likely expose a worker to physical injury in the workplace must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect the worker [section 32.0.4].

Some indicators that domestic violence may occur in the workplace include reported concerns from the targeted worker or other workers, threatening calls or unwelcome visits at the workplace.

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 that 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.

General Duties and Application to Workplace Violence

The general duties under the OHSA for employers [section 25], supervisors [section 27] and workers [section 28] continue to apply with respect to workplace violence [section 32.0.5]. For example, workers would be required to report actual or potential hazards in the workplace relating to workplace violence to their employer or supervisor.

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 [clause 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 [clause 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.

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 is addressed in more detail in the Ministry of Labour's guideline: Workplace Violence and Harassment: Understanding the Law.

Work Refusal Associated with Workplace Violence

A worker has the right to refuse work if he or she has reason to believe that workplace violence is likely to endanger himself or herself or another worker. For further details on the work refusal process, refer to Part V – Right to Refuse or to Stop Work Where Health and Safety in Danger of this Guide.

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Disclaimer: This web resource has been prepared to assist the workplace parties in understanding some of their obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and the regulations. It is not intended to replace the OHSA or the regulations and reference should always be made to the official version of the legislation.

It is the responsibility of the workplace parties to ensure compliance with the legislation. This web resource does not constitute legal advice. If you require assistance with respect to the interpretation of the legislation and its potential application in specific circumstances, please contact your legal counsel.

While this web resource will also be available to Ministry of Labour inspectors, they will apply and enforce the OHSA and its regulations based on the facts as they may find them in the workplace. This web resource does not affect their enforcement discretion in any way.