Throughout much of the last decade, the provincial government frequently made headlines with their push to protect Ontario employees from workplace violence, harassment, and sexual harassment. The legislature introduced two significant bills – the first in 2010 mandating Ontario workplaces implement mandatory violence and harassment policies and procedures, and the second in 2016 amending workplace harassment to specifically include workplace sexual harassment. Ahead of the widespread #metoo movement, the government produced frequently aired television ads reminding Ontarians that harassment in any form was not okay in the workplace.
Yet it may have surprised many Ontarians to learn that those rules were not universally implemented throughout the province. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”), which implemented these new workplace requirements, only applies to provincially regulated workplaces. Federally regulated workplaces were not subject to the same laws, and while there were laws in place under the federally enforced Canada Labour Code (“CLC”) regarding workplace violence and harassment, they did not mirror their provincial counterparts.
That has now changed. The new Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations under the CLC came into force on January 1, 2021, and hold federally-regulated employers such as banks, airlines, and telecommunications companies (amongst others) to a new set of standards. Employers are not only legally required to keep up with these standards but not taking them seriously today may present serious problems down the line.
What Has Changed
There are numerous measures federal employers must now take in order to keep their workers safe and comply with the CLC. Employers must now:
- Conduct an assessment of the workplace for risks of violence and harassment, including family violence. These assessments must be conducted with the employer’s ‘applicable partner’ (such as a health and safety representative, or policy committee) and are to be done at least every 3 years.
- Implement thorough workplace violence and harassment prevention policy, which outlines several requirements, including how complaints will be handled, and what supports employees will receive upon incidents of violence.
- Implement workplace violence and harassment training that is tailored to the culture and environment of the workplace, including outlining how harassment and violence are connected to prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Note, the new regulations also include ‘sexual harassment’ under the broader definition of harassment, similar to the OHSA changes from 2016.
- Develop emergency procedures for keeping workers safe when an occurrence or threat of harassment or violence puts employees in immediate danger.
- Institute a thorough dispute resolution process, such as who will be handling complaints of harassment and violence, how they will be addressed, the requirements of an investigation, and the mandated timelines for this process.
- Devise measures for how the privacy of individuals involved in a workplace complaint will be protected.
These are not the only measures required under the new legislation. The new regulations are thorough, and outline the many steps that employers must take in order to achieve and maintain a safe workplace.
Protecting Employers As Well As Employees
These new regulations have been enacted to protect employees, but employees do not perform their duties in a vacuum. Employers’ responsibilities for providing a safe work environment extend to a harassment-free workplace, and employers may be liable for incidents that occur on their premises.
While the new regulations may appear to protect employees, they offer significant safeguards for employers. For example, while the requirement to conduct routine workplace assessments to identify risk factors inherently benefits employees, it also ensures that employers get a closer look at the inner workings of their business. Yet it is the requirement to provide thorough workplace training and to respond to incidents in a timely fashion, which may offer employers the most protection.
Courts and tribunals take matters of workplace violence and harassment very seriously. If an employee who has been a victim of workplace violence or harassment pursues legal action, a court will carefully scrutinize not only what policies and procedures the employer had in place, but the exact measures that were taken to resolve the incident and protect the employee. Any failure to act properly or in a timely fashion exposes the employer to significant legal liability, which may in turn have serious financial consequences.
A Message For Employers
For employers in Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and beyond, the message here is loud and clear: employees are entitled to a safe workplace no matter what jurisdiction they may fall under, and the onus is on employers to take reasonable steps to keep employees free from workplace violence and harassment.
At Pavey Law, our employment lawyers regularly work with employers and employees when it comes to workplace violence and harassment. We assist employers in properly protecting their workplaces, from drafting and implementing these policies and procedures, to responding to incidents when they do arise. We also represent employees who have been subject to these incidents and work diligently to ensure that these matters are dealt with appropriately. A safe workplace benefits everyone, and we do all that we can to help make that happen. Contact us today for more information on how we can help keep your workplace safe.