Ontario workplace violence bill demands good behavioral threat assessment processes

Many questions have been raised about the provision in Ontario’s new workplace violence legislation that requires employers to disclose information about individuals who may cause physical injury to workers. My take on the provision is that the actual disclosure duty is fairly narrow, and that the provision is most significant because it requires good behavioral threat assessment processes. I’ve laid out my reasoning below.

The section everyone’s talking about is section 32.05(3). It reads as follows:

(3) An employer’s duty to provide information to a worker under clause 25 (2) (a) and a supervisor’s duty to advise a worker under clause 27 (2) (a) include the duty to provide information, including personal information, related to a risk of workplace violence from a person with a history of violent behaviour if,

(a) the worker can be expected to encounter that person in the course of his or her work; and

(b) the risk of workplace violence is likely to expose the worker to physical injury.

The first question asked about this provision is, “How do we know if a person has a history of violence?” The language of the provision is strict: it does not say “known history of violence.” Does this mean that employers must be omniscient? No.

Health and safety legislation is typically drafted in onerous language to encourage behavior that maximizes protection for workers. Though claims by employers of over-breadth and vagueness about such language are typically unsuccessful, even by promulgating meaningless language that seems to set an absurdly high standard of conduct (such as omniscience), the government cannot preclude a due diligence defence. So the government can encourage employers to act upon knowledge of an individual’s history of violence (as it has done), but can’t sustain a charge based on a failure to be omniscient if it is reasonable to protect a worker by knowing less about another individual’s history.

What is reasonable then? This is certainly a point that will be litigated, but there is a wealth of available literature on threat assessment to give employers guidance today. If I can simplify, this literature requires organizations to (1) have access to the right people (who can assess a threat based on reports about individual behavior); (2) who can be provided with the right information (including all known behaviors about a threat plus information that can be gathered through reasonable threat inquires); (3) so they can assess threats and take appropriate action at the right time.

What about human rights and privacy concerns? Regarding human rights concerns, threat assessment is not about “profiling” an individual based on a stereotype but, rather, is about gathering facts about behavior to understand a potential threat. Performed properly, it should be defensible. Regarding privacy, threat assessment requires access to information about threats. Employers may have a duty to gather information in the course of conducting an assessment, but the more fundamental duty is to “know what you know” by having a system in place for reporting and recording concerning behavior in the workplace, including all violent acts. This conception – know what you know and conduct threat inquires as necessary – seems to strike a fair balance between workplace health and safety and personal privacy.

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