Bill 168 offers chance of safer workplace – harrassment

Today is the fourth anniversary of the death of Lori Dupont, who was killed at her workplace, Windsor’s Hotel Dieu Grace Hospital, by her ex-partner, Dr. Marc Daniele, a doctor in the same hospital.

An inquest into the murder recommended changes to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Workplace harassment and violence is a serious problem in Ontario. Fortunately, the provincial government has finally recognized this and is committed to change.

As it happens, this anniversary coincides with the announcement of public hearings for Bill 168, an act to amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act with respect to violence and harassment in the workplace and other matters.

Bill 168 introduces enhanced protections against workplace violence, new measures to address workplace harassment and a pioneering measure to include violence and harassment that occurs as a result of domestic violence.

The proposed changes also come as a result of the inquest into the workplace murder of Theresa Vince in Chatham a decade earlier. In 1997 that jury recommended the province’s study, including harassment and sexual harassment under Ontario’s health and safety legislation.

Clearly, the changes are intended to bring greater safety and security for all members of Ontario’s workforce.

Several attempts have been made in the past to amend the OHSA through private member’s bills introduced by MPPs of both the Liberal and NDP parties. The Ontario government has demonstrated appropriate commitment to positive change through the introduction of Bill 168, freeing this latest attempt to improve worker safety and security from the vulnerable status of a private member’s bill.

In its current form, the bill separates definitions of “workplace violence” and “workplace harassment” and then sets out separate provisions to address workplace violence, harassment and domestic violence.

The result is that the legislation continues to emphasize the risk of physical violence, rather than focusing on the continuum of behaviours that result in risk to safety, well-being and health.

A continuum of violence recognizes that violence is complex and multi-faceted. It acknowledges some acts of violence are clearly interpreted as violent, while others are “grey”, confusing and misunderstood. A continuum of violence includes the notion that behaviours such as verbal abuse or unwanted attention that we have had a tendency to see as innocuous may act as precursors to more physically destructive violent behaviour.

Workplace harassment also leads to the deterioration of workers’ physical health and psychological well-being due to stress-related illnesses and injuries.

Harassment may involve verbal or physical threats, intimidation or demeaning behaviour such as being followed, insulted, sworn or shouted at, threatened, criticized, made to feel bad or guilty, and includes passive-aggressive approaches and acts of neglect or failure to acknowledge contributions of others.

Sometimes these types of behaviour may seem relatively minor, but cumulatively they can become very serious.

If harassment is not part of the “workplace violence” definition, critical warning signs that physical violence and/or serious illness may occur can be more easily overlooked.

The most effective way to prevent workplace violence, including harassment and domestic violence, is to address all of these threats to workers’ safety and security under one program in order to relay a new standard for cultural values in Ontario workplaces.

Separating harassment and domestic violence from the definition of workplace violence risks the inadvertent consequence of sending a message to workers and their employers that psychological or non-physical forms of violence are less serious, or that they can lead to less serious consequences.

The deaths of Theresa Vince and Lori Dupont are our most stark reminder that this is not true.

Many other examples that have not resulted in homicide could equally well illustrate the point that violence occurs on a continuum and we cannot assume that harassing behaviour will not escalate or cause serious harm in and of themselves.

It is also important to clearly outline where responsibility for implementing the amended OHSA will lie. In unionized workplaces, joint health and safety committees are best positioned to ensure that the provisions of Bill 168 are fully implemented.

We need a framework that is preventive and systemic, rather than one that is primarily reactive and remedial.

Bill 168 is an important step forward.

In order to truly honour the lives of women such as Vince and Dupont, we have to learn to recognize the warning signs of violence in the workplace, so we aren’t left responding to the tragic and often irrevocable consequences of workplace violence. 

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