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How to build a workplace harassment and violence risk assessment

November 10, 2020
By Bill Howatt and Kelly VanBuskirk

(prathaan/Adobe Stock)

Workplace harassment and violence are more common in Canada than we’d like to think.

Statistics Canada research indicates that more than 20 per cent of Canadian workers have been exposed to violence in their workplaces and a whopping 60 per cent have been the victims of harassment.

Employers should be motivated to eliminate harassment and violence risks, given that these incidents can result in serious psychological and physical injuries to employees.

But for employers who aren’t self-motivated, governments across the country have imposed obligations that require workplace harassment and violence risk assessments to be completed, and knowing how to comply is an important way of increasing employee safety, reducing incident risks and lessening costly legal claims.


One of the duties employers now have is to conduct a workplace harassment and violence risk assessment, and here is some basic guidance that will help you do the assessment properly.

Create a file to preserve your compliance efforts

Some employers (and, frankly, some consultants) overlook this crucial beginning step in the risk assessment process.

In order to best protect your employees, you will need to keep a record of the various steps you take in developing and improving your assessment procedures.

Even if your work is “best-in-class,” you must be able to demonstrate what you’ve done to comply with the law.

As a starting point then, create and preserve a file that will contain all of the documents that are relevant to your workplace risk assessment, including the credentials of the people you task with the responsibility of identifying risk factors in your workplace and the design of your assessment process.

Informal resolution efforts will soon be mandatory in harassment, violence cases

Choose qualified people to design and conduct your risk assessment

The Work Place Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations don’t allow you to assign the design and conduct of your workplace risk assessment to an entry level employee who has time on their hands or to a manager who usually gets things done quickly and efficiently.

Instead, your appointed person (whether an HR professional, consultant or otherwise) has to work collaboratively with your workplace policy committee or health and safety representative to formulate, conduct and evaluate your risk assessment, and everyone involved in the task must be “qualified… by virtue of their training, education or experience.”

In your file (Step 1), keep a record of your committee members, your health and safety representative and any manager, HR professional or consultant who collaborates on your risk assessment, as well as their qualifications.

Make sure your risk assessment covers the right risks and examine them thoroughly

Some early risk assessment checklists focused primarily on employers’ physical premises at the expense of additional factors that can facilitate harassment and violence.  Adhere to the following considerations when designing your workplace risk assessment:

  • the culture, conditions, activities and organizational structure of the workplace
  • circumstances external to the workplace, such as family violence, that could give rise to harassment and violence in the workplace
  • any reports, records and data that are related to harassment and violence in the workplace
  • the physical design of the workplace
  • the measures that are in place to protect psychological health and safety in the workplace.

Several tools should be utilized to maximize the accuracy of your risk assessment. An audit or scan of your workplace can be conducted by your qualified assessment team; but it is also useful to consider an industry comparison of your business with others in the same industry and, additionally, an employee harassment and violence risk questionnaire.

The design and administration of your questionnaire is important if it is going to recover the data you need to identify risks, another procedure best left to your qualified staff or consultant with the appropriate expertise.

Use your risk assessment findings to develop your preventative measures

We’ve previously written about some of the preventative measures that can be designed and implemented to reduce harassment and violence risks in your workplace.

Those measures should be based on the results of your risk assessment and, while that may seem obvious, not every employer has recognized that link.

By building your preventative measures to address the risks in your workplace, you will give yourself a much better chance of reducing your employees’ chances of exposure to harassment and violence.

Also, take note that your preventative measures must be developed within six months of completing your risk assessment.

Make your risk assessment a living document

Once your risk assessment is complete, there may be a temptation to shelve it as a static, finished product.

The law requires more than that, and as a result you must review and update the assessment in the following instances:

  • every three years
  • whenever there is a change in the risk factors or in the effectiveness of a preventative measure derived from your assessment
  • every time an “occurrence” (occurrence of harassment and violence in the workplace) is not resolved through negotiation in the workplace
  • every time an “occurrence” involves a non-employee of your business.

Finally, conducting a proper workplace harassment and risk assessment involves more effort than simply asking a few questions.

A thorough assessment demands time and careful planning by qualified people.

However, the end result is worth it:  your workplace will be safer and your employees will be healthier as well compliant to legislation that requires a workplace audit as a core step in implementing a respectful workplace policy and programs.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. Kelly VanBuskirk is a partner with Lawson Creamer in Saint John, N.B.

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