Table of Contents | Print this page

1. Key Terms and Concepts

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.

1.1 Workplace

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) defines a workplace[1] 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.

1.2 Worker

Worker means any of the following, but does not include an inmate of a correctional institution or like institution or facility who participates inside the institution or facility in a work project or rehabilitation program:

  1. A person who performs work or supplies services for monetary compensation.
  2. A secondary school student who performs work or supplies services for no monetary compensation under a work experience program authorized by the school board that operates the school in which the student is enrolled.
  3. A person who performs work or supplies services for no monetary compensation under a program approved by a college of applied arts and technology, university or other post-secondary institution.
  4. A person who receives training from an employer, but who, under the Employment Standards Act, 2000, is not an employee for the purposes of that Act because the conditions set out in subsection 1 (2) of that Act have been met.
  5. Such other persons as may be prescribed who perform work or supply services to an employer for no monetary compensation.

1.3 Workplace Violence

The OHSA 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 may 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.

The 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.

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, attempt to apply, or threaten to apply physical force against a worker. However, he or she does not need to have the capacity to appreciate that 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.

Workplace violence could also include situations where two non-workers, patients for example, are fighting and a worker is 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 ultimately caused 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.

1.4 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.

1.5 Workplace Harassment

The OHSA defines workplace harassment 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 definition of workplace harassment includes workplace sexual harassment [section 1]. See Section 1.6 of this guide for more information about workplace sexual harassment.

This definition of workplace harassment is broad enough to include all types of harassment prohibited under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, including sexual harassment. See Section 4.4 of this guide for the list of prohibited grounds of harassment under the Code.

Workplace harassment also includes what is often called “psychological harassment” or “personal harassment.”

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). However, there may be situations where the conduct happens only once. For example, a single instance of an unwelcome sexual solicitation or advance from a supervisor or manager could constitute workplace sexual harassment. See Section 1.6 of this guide for more information.

What is workplace harassment?

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, in a workplace. It can also include behaviour that intimidates, isolates or even discriminates against the targeted individual(s).

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
  • workplace sexual harassment.

What isn’t workplace harassment?

A reasonable action taken by an employer or supervisor relating to the management and direction of workers or the workplace [section 1(4)].

Reasonable management actions would be part of a manager’s or supervisor’s normal work function, and could include changes in work assignments, scheduling, job assessment and evaluation, workplace inspections, implementation of health and safety measures, and disciplinary action.

If these actions are not exercised reasonably and fairly they may constitute workplace harassment. For example, if a worker was not scheduled for shifts solely because of his or her sexual orientation, this would likely be workplace harassment.

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

1.6 Workplace Sexual Harassment

The OHSA defines workplace sexual harassment as:

  • engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker, in a workplace because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression where the course of comment or conduct is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, or
  • making a sexual solicitation or advance where the person making it is in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to the worker and the person knows or ought reasonably to know the solicitation or advance is unwelcome [section 1].

This definition of workplace sexual harassment reflects the prohibitions on sexual harassment and sexual solicitation found in Ontario’s Human Rights Code. See Section 4.4 of this guide for more information about the Code.

As mentioned in Section 1.5 of this guide, the comments or conduct typically happen more than once, although a single unwelcome solicitation or advance from a manager, supervisor, or another person who has the power to reward or punish the worker may constitute workplace sexual harassment. Multiple events can occur over a relatively short period of time or over a longer period.

What is workplace sexual harassment?

Workplace sexual harassment can involve unwelcome words or actions associated with sex, sexual orientation or gender that are that are known or should be known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating or demeaning to a worker or group of workers, in a workplace. It can also include behaviour that intimidates or isolates individual(s).

Workplace sexual harassment may include:

  • asking questions, talking, or writing about sexual activities;
  • rough or vulgar humour or language related to sexuality, sexual orientation or gender;
  • displaying or circulating pornography, sexual images, or offensive sexual jokes in print or electronic form;
  • leering or inappropriate staring;
  • invading personal space;
  • unnecessary physical contact, including inappropriate touching;
  • demanding hugs, dates, or sexual favours;
  • making gender-related comments about someone’s physical characteristics, mannerisms, or conformity to sex-role stereotypes;
  • verbally abusing, threatening or taunting someone based on gender or sexual orientation; or,
  • threatening to penalize or otherwise punish a worker if they refuse a sexual advance.

Where the conduct or behaviour includes inappropriate sexual touching, this may also constitute a criminal offence such as sexual assault. In such cases, the police should be notified. See Section 4.3 of this guide for more on the role of the police.

What are gender identity and gender expression?

Gender identity is each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum. A person’s gender identity may be the same as or different from their birth-assigned sex. Gender identity is fundamentally different from a person’s sexual orientation[2].

Gender expression is how a person publicly presents their gender. This can include behaviour and outward appearance such as dress, hair, make-up, body language and voice. A person’s chosen name and pronoun are also common ways of expressing gender[3].

1.7 Continuum of Behaviours

A continuum of inappropriate or unacceptable behaviours can occur at the workplace. This can range from offensive remarks to violence. Workplace harassment may escalate over time. Where harassment, including sexual harassment, in the workplace involves threats, attempts or acts of physical force, this would be considered to be workplace violence under the Act.

It is important for employers to recognize these behaviours and to deal with them promptly. Addressing incidents of harassment not only helps the targeted worker but their co-workers as well. Taking action can also prevent harassment from escalating in the workplace and possibly resulting in physical violence by either the harasser or the targeted worker.

Previous | Next

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

[2]Ontario Human Rights Commission, Gender Identity and Gender Expression (PDF), accessed March 23, 2016.

[3]Ibid.

ISBN 978-1-4606-8519-8 (HTML)
ISBN 978-1-4606-8520-4 (PDF)
ISBN 978-1-4606-8518-1 (Print)

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.