Recognizing Violence and Harassment Hazards in the Workplace

Violence and harassment in the workplace is a serious issue. According to Statistics Canada, 17% of all violence and harassment reports in Canada happened in the workplace. That’s a total of 365,000 workplace violence and harassment incidents occurring in Canadian workplaces every year!

With numbers like that, it’s clear — identifying workplace violence and harassment risks and controlling hazards is important in all workplaces. In fact, it’s not just important – it’s mandatory. Employers in Ontario are legally required to protect workers from workplace violence and harassment hazards. Since no workplace is immune from the threat or risk of workplace violence and harassment, it’s important that all employers, managers, and workers have an understanding of what workplace violence and harassment is, how to recognize risks and hazards associated with it, and how to implement controls aimed at protecting workers.

What is Workplace Violence and Harassment?

It is important to understand the legal definitions of workplace, workplace violence, and workplace harassment. Many people have an idea of what behaviours constitute violence and harassment, but the legal definitions are pretty specific.

The Ministry of Labour’s Workplace Violence and Harassment: Understanding the Law guideline defines a workplace as:

“any land, premises, location or thing at, upon, in, or near which a worker works. A workplace could be a building, mine, construction site, vehicle, open field, road, or forest.”

The same guideline 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. Workplace violence 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

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
  • trying to run down a worker using a vehicle or equipment such as a forklift

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (The Act) 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. It can also include behaviour that intimidates, isolates or 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
  • workplace sexual harassment

Recognizing Risks and Hazards

Workplace violence and harassment risks aren’t just from sources within the workplace, such as coworkers or managers. Many perpetrators of violence and harassment are members of the public, or someone the victim knows.

An initial step to identifying hazards is to also recognize that while no workplace is immune to violence and harassment risks, certain workplaces and/or fields are more vulnerable, such as:

  • Health care
  • Social services
  • Retail
  • Hospitality
  • Financial institutions
  • Educational institutions
  • Transportation
  • Police, security, and corrections

In order to identify actual or potential workplace violence risks, the Act makes employers responsible for ensuring that a risk assessment for workplace violence is completed . The risk assessment may be completed by the employer in collaboration with any combination of JHSC members, managers, other workers, or a private company that has consulting services, such as OSG. The assessment must be specific to the workplace.

How to Conduct A Workplace Violence Risk Assessment

When conducting a workplace violence risk assessment, a general physical assessment of the workplace should be conducted. Following that, risks associated with specific work activities or conditions should be identified.

Look at contributing factors when identifying potential violence hazards:

  • People factors, such as volatile customers, stressed coworkers, or distressed patients
  • Environmental factors such as high crime areas or mobile workplaces
  • Process factors, such as lack of reporting processes, working alone, or unclear policies

Risk assessments are not “one and done” undertakings. Risks should be re-assessed regularly, at least on an annual basis. However, there are certain circumstances that may invoke the need for an unscheduled re-assessment, such as:

  • the workplace moves or the existing workplace is renovated or reconfigured
  • there are significant changes in the type of work
  • there are significant changes in the conditions of work
  • there is new information on the risks of workplace violence
  • 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

Controlling Workplace Violence and Harassment Hazards

Hazard controls for workplace violence and harassment may include:

  • Elimination controls that remove the risk entirely (such as removing petty cash from a premises)
  • design or process (for example, installing panic buttons in parking garages)
  • Administrative controls aimed at creating safe work practices (for example, having a violence and harassment policy and program in place, and providing training on the program elements, or putting policies in place aimed at protecting workers)
  • Worker controls, such as providing workers with whistles that alert others to distress

Workplace violence and harassment hazard controls must be monitored for effectiveness. Hazard controls aren’t truly effective without follow-up.

Learning to recognize violence and harassments hazards is a key consideration in a sound health and safety program, because it’s about more than just the hazards you can see with your eyes.

We offer workplace violence and harassment training in-class and on-site, as well as online, so that you can choose the most convenient delivery method. We also offer the unique Evaluating your Workplace Violence and Harassment Program; a work-shop based course that allows you to evaluate your existing program, identify areas of improvement, and strengthen the program using information and tools offered in class. Contact us to learn more!