Joe Bonsu knows first-hand about the daily violence and harassment security guards face at work, having spent five years working as one.
Now, he stands up for security guards as president of local 5296 of United Steelworkers in Canada and he hasn’t forgotten about what he dealt with while working security at various hospitals, including the Queensway General Hospital in Toronto.
Bonsu says patients spat at him, called him names and told him to go back to where he came from.
He recalls during one particular incident having to restrain a patient.
“It became so violent that I didn’t know what to do.”
Bonsu now has back problems and can’t walk properly.
And he isn’t the only one.
Just this past June, a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., was shot on the job and later died in hospital.
Here in Canada, a Pointe Claire, Que. security guard was attacked in a park in June, after coming to help a woman who he thought was being attacked by three men. The security guard was stabbed in two places and punched and kicked by the men.
And in 2006, a 34-year-old female security guard was raped while working alone overnight at a Calgary construction site.
According to the Homicide Survey, which is based on Canadian police-reported data on homicide incidents, victims and accused people, there were 69 homicides in Canada that were a result of the victim’s legal employment, between 2001 and 2005. Three of these victims were security guards. [Watch: COS special video feature on workplace violence]
In the last 10 years workplace violence has become “really topical” in occupational health and safety regulatory circles, but has always been a “big issue” within the private security industry because dealing with this violence is part of the job, says Brian Robertson, president of Ontario-based Diligent Security Training and Consulting.
In the security industry, workplace violence is about “dealing with very imminent, real-time, actually violent or potentially … violent scenarios,” he says.
For a long time members of the private security industry have been “comfortable” seeing themselves as part of the way employers protect their employees from harm, but in the last five or six years the industry has started viewing security guards as workers who have the right to be protected from workplace violence, just as much as the people they protect, he explains.
That’s why Robertson believes employers should be providing their security guards with better training and personal protection equipment so they are protected from workplace violence.
Despite an Ontario Labour Relations Board precedent that determined this personal protection equipment as body armour, a baton for self-defence, and handcuffs to arrest and restrain the assailant, access to this equipment is “hit and miss” for security guards, he says.
Most have “excellent” access to cellphones and radios, but not to the other protections they need: quick backup, good training on physical “use of force” skills to get the violent person under control, if necessary, a baton, and protection equipment, such as vests to protect them from weapons, such as knives or guns.
By having these “tools and capabilities,” security guards are going to be able to protect others and themselves from harm for at least a short period of time and be able to exercise enough control until backup arrives, Robertson says.
Braidy Parker, a security consultant for the Association for the Advancement of Safety Technologies a non-profit organization that specializes in training, policy development and safety-related technologies, also believes security guards should have better training and personal protection equipment.
“It’s an extremely tough job,” he notes. Parker says real-time auditing needs to be conducted of the workplace violence that takes place in specific locations, and security staff need to be equipped and trained to appropriately respond to this violence.
More “hands-on use of force training” and personal protection equipment, in terms of body armour and protection devices, such as batons, should be provided, he says.
However, there are obstacles to acquiring these protective measures.
According to Parker, most employers address violence only from a human resource perspective, which views all people as reasonable and that workplace violence can be talked out. Their action plan for when this violence occurs is to call security.
Employers need to listen to their employees and understand that there’s a “significant portion of the population” that cannot be reasoned with and is there to do harm, he says.
Protecting the protectors
In his own consulting experience over the years, Parker says organizations have failed to significantly address how to protect their employees, particularly those who are in the security side of business, in terms of their training and the supply of equipment.
“No one has thought about what to do to protect the people that turn up to protect you.”
On a daily basis private sector security guards are threatened, shoved, pushed and spat on while dealing with calls regarding situations, such as shoplifting.
“What you don’t know is the shoplifter is stealing to feed a drug habit,” he says. “So already their mental ability to maintain reasonableness is already going over the edge.”
“Once you find yourself actually in the scenario … you cannot turn around and walk away from it. It is often more dangerous to turn around and walk away simply because the other person will not let you.”
In Ontario, on a nearly daily basis security guards have to deal with either finding knives and firearms on people or having these weapons pulled on them when making an arrest, he says.
In hospitals, they are the ones who are called in to control mental health patients or people who have drug problems who can’t be reasoned with, Parker explains.
As well, those who work at organizations that have methadone exchange clinics for drug patients are also at risk of being stabbed with a needle and possibly becoming infected.
When it comes to workplace violence issues, “we have to look away from the traditional HR [idea that] it’s just name-calling” because while bullying is a serious issue, security guards deal with physical violence, people who are HIV- and hepatitis-positive, people who fall under the Mental Health Act and people who have “significant social problems,” he says.
Moreover, there are many employers in the private security industry who hesitate to provide their workers with personal protection equipment because the industry has an “identity crisis” over whether security guards act like the police or observe and report, Robertson says.
A security manager within an organization might want his or her employees to be equipped, better trained and have a “more straightforward mandate to go and exercise their lawful authority to get control of a situation, in order to protect people,” he explains.
However, someone above the manager may veto these things because while they want the security guards to keep everyone safe, they want them to do so without using force.
“What’s fallacious about that is the belief by anyone that you can, through a policy edict, pre-determine which security guards are going to be exposed to workplace violence and which ones aren’t.”
This “identity crisis” is one reason why some security guards receive no or little “use of force” training, while others receive a lot, Robertson says.
Another reason is the cost of training, particularly in the contract security guard industry, which has a significantly high turnover rate and the contracts that clients sign tend to have low margins, he explains.
“Contract guard companies just often find that they can’t afford or feel that they can’t afford to spend a lot of time on use of force training.”
Bonsu says most of the complaints he receives from security guards are that they weren’t trained properly.
“We are preaching this to the employer whose only concern is to make profit.”
There is hope that Bill 168, which is an act to amend Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act with respect to workplace violence and harassment, will help improve the safety of security guards in the province. This legislation was passed last December and will take effect on June 15, 2010.
Cheryl Edwards, a partner at Heenan Blaikie LLP in Toronto and leader of its national OHS and workers’ compensation group, says the legislation “would bring Ontario into line with many of the other jurisdictions in Canada” where employers have a “specific obligation” to protect workers from violence and workers have specific rights related to violence.
She says the legislation is significant because it recognizes the employer’s obligation to put in place protections and create procedures and policies relating to violence and harassment. Currently in Ontario there is “a very general and vague obligation to take every precaution reasonable, which covers many topics.”
According to a report by Heenan Blaikie, the Canada Labour Code at the federal level and the occupational health and safety legislation of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have requirements to prevent workplace violence.
Quebec’s Labour Standards Act has a requirement to prevent psychological harassment in the workplace. Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s legislation also currently include harassment in their definitions of workplace violence.
In terms of security companies and the workplace violence they tend to be concerned about – an intruder or criminal entering the workplace – Bill 168 will require employers to conduct a workplace assessment, looking at the circumstances specific to the workplace, she says.
For example, they will have to assess whether a security guard is working in a remote or isolated area and if they’re working at night.
Edwards says with this bill, the employer will also have to look at the hazards that could affect his or her employees and then create a program “to take into account the specific type of work that they’re doing.”
She says the legislation seems to acknowledge the kinds of measures necessary for security personnel, such as using a cellphone or an emergency communication device to call for help.
“The most noteworthy element of security work seems to be working alone at night or working in a remote, isolated location and if they don’t have a means of summoning help when someone intrudes or someone is there to take what they’re guarding then … they’re going to be endangered.”
Therefore, this legislation identifies one of the main methods the security industry will use to protect its workers, Edwards says.
This bill might “simply entrench through a legislative requirement what good, responsible security firms have been doing already,” she says.
“There are some very specific steps that will positively impact the safety of workers in that sector.”
Robertson, says the new legislation will “hasten” the arrival of security personnel “being properly tasked, trained and equipped” because the current status quo is “all over the map” and cannot be maintained.
With this legislation, security guard employers will either acknowledge that their employees are “put in the path of workplace violence” because of their line of work, and therefore acknowledge that as employers they have a responsibility to provide “use of force” training, clear policy guidelines, protective vests, batons and handcuffs, or they will acknowledge that they don’t actually have a security force.
However, the latter doesn’t work, says Robertson.
“You can’t keep security … from finding themselves in harm’s way,” he says. “In any event, to the extent that you succeed in getting them to do that, you open your organization up to enormous problems because essentially you’ve now said we have a security force here, but they’re prohibited from protecting the people in the building.”
Parker says because workplace violence is not going to be addressed if it’s looked at as a human resource issue, he believes those who who will be implementing the legislation need to look at the ground level of who is called in to deal with workplace violence.
“I’m hoping beyond hope this legislation will actually take a more definitive look at the private sector security of which there are over 60,000 of us in the province.”
“I think it’s really significant finally that the government has acted,” says Nancy Hutchison, health and safety coordinator of United Steelworkers in Canada for Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. “Thank God that they’re at least going in the right direction.”
She says the part of the legislation that addresses domestic violence that enters the workplace will have a “significant effect” on the union’s members who are security guards because they are often the “gatekeepers” to a workplace or establishment.
If a worker tells their employer that their partner has threatened to come to the workplace, then the employer will have to take precautions to ensure that worker and others, which often includes security guards, are protected, she says. This way the security guards can be prepared for a possible a threat.
In addition, there are often signs beforehand that indicate domestic violence could occur, so precautions can be taken, Hutchison says.
Right to refuse work
An aspect of the legislation, which will undoubtedly have a major impact on security guards in the private sector, is the change it makes to the work refusal provisions in Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, which allows workers the right to refuse unsafe work.
The general workplace refusal provision in the province’s occupational health and safety legislation is “very narrow” because workers can only refuse unsafe work if “it’s made unsafe by some physical environmental condition” and until now, the Ministry of Labour has taken the position that this does not cover workplace violence, Robertson says.
However, Bill 168 expressly says workers have a right to refuse work if they believe they would likely be endangered by workplace violence, making Ontario the first province to have written such provision in the workplace violence legislation, he says.
According to Robertson, this provision “raises enormous potential ramifications” for the security industry.
“There’s an argument for saying that hundreds, if not thousands of the 65,000 licensed security guards and private investigators in Ontario would start using their right to refuse unsafe work if they were to learn about their legal right to do so," he says.
The arrival of this legislation, the publicity surrounding it and this right to refuse work provision “will be a vehicle by which Ministry of Labour inspectors are attracted like flies to security operations,” Robertson says.
Once the Ministry of Labour inspector arrives, then the employer will have to deal with the problem posed by workplace violence because the inspector will issue an order to him or her to provide protections, such as protective vests and batons, he explains.
Bonsu also believes that if security employers know their employees have the right to refuse work under these circumstances then they will be more inclined to provide the required training.
However, he says that while the right will have a positive impact on workers, the government needs to educate them on how to use this right accordingly.
According to Edwards, if a security guard in the private sector refuses to work because of “likely endangerment” this will be “problematic” because it could cause an investigation, and the security guard could leave the work location.
Parker says the idea of the right to refuse work based on the possibility of violence is a good one in theory and “may work if the officer is informed of the potential for violence before attending the scene,” allowing him or her to make an informed decision.
However, “the problem arises when security receives a call to attend a location with little or no information, only to discover that the situation is violent or about to turn violent,” he says.
Since violence is “spontaneous and erupts with very little warning” in many situations, walking away from this kind of situation would be difficult, he says.
“Employers of security need to take a long look at the realities of providing effective security for both its employees and the public,” Parker says.