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Workplace violence is rampant in Canada – here’s how to stop it

Leaving workplace harassment, violence risk assessments to managers will lead to flaws


Photo: Getty Images

As a country, we’ve been a bit naïve when it comes to workplace violence. For many Canadians, the notion that we could be aggressive and even violent in our workplaces seems far-fetched.

Americans? Maybe. Canadians? Not so much.

Yet, ever since the International Labour Organization (ILO) tagged us as the fourth-worst country for workplace violence in 1998 (even worse than our southern neighbours), we’ve been trying to overcome our collective state of denial so that we can constructively address this problematic behaviour.

Now, federally-regulated companies in Canada have a new legal obligation to establish workplace anti-harassment and anti-violence policies and programs to eradicate this misconduct. An important step in this process involves a workplace risk assessment.

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If workplace harassment and violence risk assessments are left solely to managers, they’re likely to be flawed. A good example might be the susceptibility of managers to social dominance orientation, which can generate harassing behaviours and might not be self-identified as a concern.

For that reason, Regulation SOR/2020-130 under the Canada Labour Code requires federally regulated employers to collaborate with “applicable partners” such as a policy committee, a workplace committee or a health and safety representative to thoroughly evaluate harassment and violence risks.

What you’re assessing

The new regulation offers clear directions regarding the types of risks to be assessed:

  • The culture, conditions, activities and organizational structure of the workplace.
  • External circumstances, including domestic violence, that could cause harassment or violence in the workplace.
  • Reports or records of harassment and violence in the workplace.
  • Risks posed by the physical design of the workplace.
  • Measures to protect physical and mental health and safety in the workplace.

Through a simple examination of workplace harassment and violence risk factors, it’s possible to reduce these health and safety concerns. This has been shown by several studies that illustrate heightened workplace violence risks in industries such as social assistance, health care, hospitality, retail trade and education.

Further, interpersonal risks relating to the mental health of co-workers and other individuals with whom contact is made at work provide warnings.

What to examine

A thorough workplace risk assessment should examine a variety of safety subjects, including:

  • training in the recognition and reporting of risks and violence incidents or threats
  • provisions for accessing security and policing assistance
  • workplace movement patterns
  • procedures concerning elevated violence risks such as money handling, working alone and travel
  • facility design, including access points, lighting, locks, exits, washroom safety and communication systems
  • signage
  • protocols for field workers

Workplace violence is a significant risk in Canadian workplaces and employers are required to take measured steps to reduce incidents of aggression toward employees.

A straightforward assessment of your workplace violence risks is not only a legal requirement but an opportunity to improve the health and safety of your employees. By adopting a well-designed approach to this problem, you’ll be minimizing an all-too-frequent danger.

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