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New bill tackles workplace violence, harassment

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com

A new bill has been introducedin the Ontario Legislature that sought to amend the provincial Occupational Healthand Safety Act to include provisions dealing with workplace harassment andviolence.

Andrea Horwath, MPP for Hamilton Centre,filed the proposed legislation following the release of the recommendationsfrom an inquiry into the death of Lori Dupont, a Windsor, Ont. nurse reportedlykilled by an ex-boyfriend who is a doctor at the same hospital where Dupontworked.

A new bill has been introducedin the Ontario Legislature that sought to amend the provincial Occupational Healthand Safety Act to include provisions dealing with workplace harassment andviolence.

Andrea Horwath, MPP for Hamilton Centre,filed the proposed legislation following the release of the recommendationsfrom an inquiry into the death of Lori Dupont, a Windsor, Ont. nurse reportedlykilled by an ex-boyfriend who is a doctor at the same hospital where Dupontworked.

“This is yet another coroner’s inquest thatindicate that there are changes necessary to the Occupational Health and SafetyAct to help protect workers from harassment and violence in the workplace,”said Horwath, explaining that one of the impetus for the introduction of thebill was the Dupont case.

Although the bill was initially intended toaddress sexual harassment in the workplace, Horwath said the proposedlegislation has since been expanded to include general workplace-relatedharassment and violence, including bullying, discrimination and other types ofhuman rights violation.

Horwath noted that other provinces, such asManitoba, Quebec and Saskatchewan, are well ahead of Ontario in terms of havinglegislation that specifically pertain to harassment and violence in theworkplace.

A Statistics Canada study in 2004 revealedthat almost 20 per cent of all incidents of violence in Canada, includingphysical assault, sexual assault and robbery, happened in the workplace. Over70 percent of these workplace incidents were classified as physical assaults.

At a recent forum of Ontario safetyprofessionals hosted by the Canadian Society of Safety Engineers, OntarioLabour Minister Brad Duguid commented on the recommendations that came out ofthe Dupont inquiry, saying the government is “looking at those recommendationsvery, very closely right now.”

Although he did not specifically comment onHorwath’s proposed bill, Duguid stressed the issue needs a more “comprehensive”solution.

“I am looking at taking a little morecomprehensive approach than just say, ‘If we change a couple of words in theregulation then that’s really going to make a difference.’ It can make adifference, but I’d like to take a look at a way to try to employ bestpractices among businesses, and better awareness that violence does take placein our workplaces and there are many ways in which that violence can beprevented,” Duguid said.

He noted that in addition to regulation,training and experience are important in preventing workplace violence.

“The ability and knowledge on how tode-escalate the situation is as important as workplace policies are,” Duguid said. 

Horwath’s proposed legislation also came inthe wake of an ongoing investigation at the Toronto Jail where a number ofcorrectional guards have put forward complaints after receiving anonymous hateletters involving racially charged slurs and symbols.

The Toronto jail workers began arefuse-to-work action in January, citing provisions under the OccupationalHealth and Safety Act. According to news reports, however, the guards wereimmediately ordered to return to work by the Ministry of Labour saying theircharges did not meet the criteria under the refuse-to-work provision of theact.

The refuse-to-work criteria of the currentOccupational Health and Safety Act only pertain to dangers posed by the“physical condition” of the workplace or the machinery or equipment that theworker uses.  

“This is exactly the kind of thing thatthis bill is meant to address,” said Horwath. “It’s meant to acknowledge andrecognize that workers can be vulnerable to physical (harm) that is not just amatter of, for example exposure to chemicals or to equipment or some of themore traditional pieces that the Occupational Health and Safety Act in the pasthas had regard to.”

Horwath’s bill, which passed first reading,specifies a refuse-to-work provision if the worker has “reason the believe thatworkplace-related harassment or violence is likely to endanger himself, herselfor another worker.”

The Ontario Public Service Union (OPSEU), which is currently working on the Toronto Jail case on behalf of the jail guards, welcomed the proposed legislation saying the amendment would give the Occupational Health and Safety Act "a little bit more teeth" when it comes to workplace harassment.

"The current Occupational Health and Safety Act will protect you against anything except people," noted Don Ford, spokesperson for the OPSEU. "This is definitely something that is missing from the regulations. Hopefully this amendment will help close that a little bit," Ford added. 

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