Fortunately, most people don’t encounter violence on the job. Workplaces, with few exceptions, are usually viewed as safe and non-threatening environments. However, a recent tragedy painfully reminds us that violence can occur where many least expect: at work.
On August 26, news outlets reported that a former U.S. TV station employee in Virginia had shot and killed two of his former colleagues, a reporter and her cameraman, during a live news segment. The suspect was said to have brazenly captured the early morning murders on video for all to see before taking his own life. According to media reports, the alleged shooter had a reputation for being difficult and irritable at work. Before the tragic event, he supposedly was fired from the station after many transgressions, launched a discrimination lawsuit that was dismissed, and warned the station that there would be negative consequences for his firing.
Canada is not immune to serious acts of workplace violence by disgruntled ex-employees. In 1999, a former OC Transpo employee, in what has been reported as an act of retaliation, went on a shooting rampage in a transit garage in Ottawa. More recently, a man was accused of stabbing four co-workers in a Toronto office building after being told that his employment with a global human capital management technology company was being terminated.
These types of incidents are shocking, disturbing and unsettling. How could such awful acts happen to unsuspecting people as they perform their jobs? Were these attacks preventable?
In Ontario, employers are legally obligated to protect their workers against violence and harassment. In 2010, the Occupational Health and Safety Act was amended to impose explicit obligations on employers, supervisors, and employees to take steps to prevent and respond to workplace violence and harassment. These obligations extend to acts (or threats) of violence towards employees by anyone, including, for example, other employees, clients, spouses, and ex-employees.
It goes without saying that accounting for all of the potential endangerments an employee can face at work can be a difficult, if not an impossible task. While it may not be possible to prevent every tragedy, the law requires that employers take certain steps to minimize their occurrences.
The following are six of the most important steps that employers should take to help provide violence-free workplaces:
- Create and post up-to-date anti-harassment and anti-violence policies based on the particular circumstances of a workplace, including, for example, its workers, location, and day-to-day dealings.
- Develop and maintain training programs to ensure that employees understand the existence of policies, their application, and their administration.
- Ensure that disciplinary measures are in place to specifically address a person’s failure to abide by the policies.
- Keep records of all workplace incidents, as innocuous as they may appear, and conduct exit interviews with departing staff.
- Conduct risk assessments, share their results, and re-assess them regularly.
- Provide workers with information about the potential risk of workplace violence by those with a known history of violent behaviour.
Occupational health and safety legislation is complex, and it is recommended that employers consult with employment counsel if they have any concerns relating to their policies or programs, or with respect to an incident of workplace violence or harassment.
The employment lawyers at Singh Lamarche LLP frequently advise employers and employees on all matters of employment law, including occupational health & safety matters and workplace investigations.