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Ontario approves workplace violence law

By Mari-Len De Guzman

The Ontario government has passed into law a bill amending the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include provisions protecting workers against workplace violence and harassment.

Bill 168 was approved on third reading on December 9, 2009. Ontario workplaces will have six months from the date of royal assent to prepare their workplaces for compliance with the legislation through programs, policies and practices.

In its recent newsletter, Toronto-based law firm Heenan Blaikie outlined the key areas contained in the OHSA amendment, which includes mandatory new employer policies, required programs, training and risk assessments, new worker rights to refuse work for workplace violence, obligation to respond to domestic violence in the workplace, and employer reporting requirements.

Bill 168 was introduced in April of 2009, following a public consultation by the Ontario Ministry of Labour in the fall of 2008.

Announcing the initiative at the Health and Safety Canada show last April, Ontario Labour Minister Peter Fonseca said the move toward expanding the legislation to include workplace violence protection is “definitely something that everyone supports.”

Under the new OHSA violence provisions, Ontario employers with more than five employees will be required to prepare and post a workplace violence policy. Employers will also need to develop a written policy on workplace harassment. Workplace harassment, under the new law, is defined as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.”

According to Heenan Blaikie, this “broad and encompassing definition of workplace harassment remains unchanged from the date that Bill 168 was first introduced in April, 2009.”

Latest data from Statistics Canada indicate over 350,000 incidents of workplace violence were reported in 2004. Most of these violent incidents occur in health care or social services industry. In Ontario, health care workplaces have the highest violence-related lost-time injury rates.

A 2008 study released by York University and Carleton University, noted that about 39 per cent of health care workers experience violence on a daily basis.

“It is estimated that 50 per cent of health care workers will be physically assaulted during their professional careers,” noted Irmajean Bajnok, a director at the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, during her November 24th presentation to the legislative committee deliberating Bill 168.

The RNAO maintains that while it is a “significant step” in improving workplace safety, Bill 168 “stops short in a number of critical areas.” One of them, Bajnok said, is in the definition of workplace violence.

“Though Bill 168 distinguishes between the definitions of ‘workplace harassment’ and ‘workplace violence’, this distinction fails to take into account the reality that the two are inextricably linked.

“They involve an abuse of power and control. Other elements such as bullying, verbal abuse and harassment, which are equally harmful to workers’ health and well-being, must also, be taken into consideration.”

The RNAO also wants better protection for whistleblowers or those who report incidents or potential incidents of workplace violence or harassment.

Details of the bill can be found here.

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