New provincial legislation to curb violence at work

The wheels and gears of government often grind and turn exceedingly slow in response to pressing socio-economic problems.

Anyone who has been in the workforce and worked at different jobs for many years, as I did, has more than likely experienced workplace harassment and violence in its various forms either directly or indirectly. I had a warehouse boss once who liked to squeeze buttocks as probationary workers stood beside his desk and he pointed out mistakes they had made. Back in those days, nobody complained, for fear of “not making” their probation. He had developed the habit during the war years when most of the workers in the automotive parts warehouse were women; and it simply carried on after the war when it became an all-male staff again, as it still was when I worked there from the mid-60s into the mid-70s. 

That wasn’t the only example of workplace violence and harassment that I recall. In the lunchroom female office staff shared with us guys from the warehouse, attractive young women new on the job were often subjected to leering looks, wolf whistles and comments of a lascivious nature. I daresay at the time those who indulged in such behaviour didn’t think there was much, or anything, wrong with it. It was just men being men, or rather boys. But the vast majority of the women subjected to such behaviour were made to feel uncomfortable, or worse, felt threatened by it. And after a while they simply stayed at their office desks for lunch or went out. Anything to avoid “the animals.”

Those are just two examples of workplace harassment that I know of from my own experience. They happened a long time ago. But I daresay times have not changed that much. Make no mistake, such things, and many more examples of violence and harassment still happen on a regular basis in many workplaces, be they offices, construction sites, warehouses, factories, or government facilities. Earlier this week, for example, the CBC carried a news story about alleged workplace violence routinely taking place in a municipal job site in Mississauga. It featured a video of the alleged abuse.

Workplace violence and harassment can come in many forms. It can be homophobic or racist. It can involve behavioural problems of one or more employees or members of management taking advantage of vulnerable colleagues or staff to express their twisted personalities; or it can be personal, so-called “domestic” problems spilling over into the workplace.

Workplace harassment incidents are bad enough in themselves, considering the emotional and physical pain and discomfort they cause, and the impact they have on job performance and productivity. The price business and government pays is undoubtedly in the many millions of dollars.

But the really big danger danger is the extent to which workplace violence, denied, ignored, or otherwise left unchecked, can create a “toxic” work environment, possibly leading to personal tragedy.

The murder of Lori Dupont in November, 2005 was an example of such a worst-case scenario. Dupont was a nurse at Hotel Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor. She had been harassed and stalked so severely and felt so threatened by Dr. Marc Daniel, an anaesthesiologist at the same hospital, that she was given an escort to help her get safely to her car in the hospital parking lot. But she be stalked and harassed by Daniel until he stabbed her to death in an office in the hospital on Nov. 12, 2005. He later committed suicide. Earlier that same year he had attempted suicide, but was allowed back to work, even though other hospital staff found his behaviour “creepy,” another doctor testified at the inquest into Dupont’s death two years later. A nurse testified she was reprimanded by hospital management when she complained about Daniel’s alking of Dupont outside the operating room from which he had been banned.

The Dupont murder, ironically in a hospital setting supposedly dedicated to human health and safety, focussed a lot of attention on the overall problem of workplace harassment and violence in Ontario. No doubt it had a lot to do with the provincial government taking action to address the issue as other jurisdictions already had, including Quebec.

Bill 168 is the result. The legislation amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act to require all employers to develop policies and plans to prevent workplace violence, or deal with it effectively long before it escalates to such potentially tragic consequences. The bill was approved by the Ontario legislature and received Royal Assent last year. Its various regulations take effect June 15.

I’m surprised by how little attention Bill 168 got when it was approved, and how little it’s getting even now. The CBC report about the alleged harassment of workers at the municipal work site in Mississauga was an obvious opportunity to highlight the overall problem and the new regulations; but Bill 168 was not even mentioned in the report.

I was alerted to the new regulations by advertisements in this newspaper about a week ago by a private company offering employers ready-made packages of information to help them deal with the new legal requirements.

I venture to say most employers won’t know much, if anything, at this point about the ramifications for them of Bill 168. There’s quite a bit of information on the Ministry of Labour’s website, at http://www.labour.gov.on.ca.Go to the website and do a search for Bill 168. One of the most important things you’ll find is a guidebook designed to help employers set up their new anti-harassment regimes.

“The policy should be a high-level statement of the commitment of senior management to protect workers from workplace harassment and to investigate and deal with any incidents. The policy should address all sources of harassment in the workplace, from strangers, clients, customers, patients, students, workers, supervisors, intimate partners, or family members,” says a key statement in the guidebook.

Workplace harassment and violence is a huge and very costly problem. It should not be taken lightly. The more everyone in every workplace knows about it the better.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2010.

 

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