PLANT

Protect employees from workplace violence and harassment

Create a written policy that provides a protocol for reporting incidents.


Heated arguments can be classified as violence.
PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK

Maia is dreading Monday morning and a supervisor who makes a habit of intimidating and humiliating her in front of co-workers. This and other types of harassment play out for many workers and is an issue that often goes unreported. The harm this causes affects employees, clients, customers and visitors.

Everyone is entitled to protection while on the job. When workplace harassment and violence are not defined they can go unnoticed and unreported.

There’s a tendency to think of violence as physical – hitting, shoving, kicking and other threatening behaviours. But it can also be arguments, property damage, vandalism, theft, psychological trauma and anger-related incidents. There are also less obvious, but equally destructive, behaviours such as verbal or written threats, rumours, pranks and abuse such as swearing, insults or condescending language.

According to the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, one in five violent incidents (including physical assault, sexual assault and robbery) occur in the workplace. But violence is not limited to traditional workplaces. It can happen offsite at work functions such as conferences, training, tradeshows, social events, in clients’ homes or away from work (such as a threatening phone call at home).

A 2014 Queen’s University poll found 23% of Canadians have experienced workplace harassment. It’s a form of discrimination that involves any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates. Generally, it persists over time but includes serious one-time incidents.

Harassment occurs when someone makes unwelcome remarks or jokes based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status or disability. Repeated and persistent actions aimed at an individual can torment, undermine, frustrate or provoke a reaction. With persistence, this behaviour pressures, frightens, intimidates or incapacitates the victim.

Decreased productivity

Sexual harassment is any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature likely to cause offence or humiliation, or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment, or any opportunity for training or promotion.

A 2014 survey on sexual harassment in Canada by Angus Reid revealed three in 10 Canadians said they had been sexually harassed at work, but very few of them reported this to employers. The top reason for not reporting was a preference to deal with the incident themselves. Other reasons included embarrassment, not sure it was harassment, fear it would hurt their career, and the feeling that the issue was too minor. Three-quarters of respondents described the issue as important and that it should get more attention. The same number also believed it’s widespread or at least a common occurrence.

The human and financial costs of workplace harassment and violence are great. Victims can be affected physically and psychologically. Common responses range from low morale and productivity, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, denial, panic and anxiety, depression, fear, post-traumatic stress disorder, and thoughts of suicide.

Companies also experience increased absenteeism and healthcare costs, as well as legal expenses when steps aren’t taken to prevent harassment and violence.

Managers must not tolerate any violent behaviour including aggression, harassment or threats of violence. Such behaviours create a psychologically unsafe work environment where employees are fearful and anxious.

Commitment from management is best communicated in a written policy that includes a protocol for employees to report incidents.

Learning to recognize workplace violence and harassment is an important first step toward prevention.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton contributed this article. CCOHS provides information, training, education, management systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and the prevention of injury and illness in the workplace. Visit www.ccohs.ca.

Employee protection

Most Canadian jurisdictions have a “general duty provision” in their OH&S legislation that requires employers to take all reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of employees. More information on this topic is available in the OSH Answers (www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers) fact sheet OH&S Legislation – Due Diligence.

Canadian jurisdictions that have specific workplace violence prevention regulations include Alberta, BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and PEI. Canadian federally regulated workplaces (that fall under the Canada Labour Code, Part II) also have specific regulations. Quebec has legislation regarding “psychological harassment,” which may include forms of workplace violence.

Many jurisdictions have working alone regulations, which may have some implications for workplace violence prevention. Ontario also has specific harassment legislation.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton contributed this article. CCOHS provides information, training, education, management systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and the prevention of injury and illness in the workplace. Visit www.ccohs.ca.

This article appears in the April 2019 print issue of PLANT Magazine.

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