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An incident that occurred on April 9, 2014, in a North York office complex highlights how important it is that employers turn their mind to identifying and preventing workplace violence. At approximately 9:30 a.m. on that Wednesday morning, a 47-year-old man, armed with a knife, attacked his co-workers in an act of retaliation for his being terminated. The attacker was apprehended by police and charged with numerous crimes including attempted murder and assault, which sent four victims to the hospital.

An attack of this severity is irregular, and there is no indication that the employer could have done anything to prevent this incident.

However, workplace violence is a genuine issue that employers need to be prepared for, as a significant proportion of violent incidents occur in the workplace. A 2004 Statistics Canada survey found that seventeen (17) percent of violent incidents occur at the workplace. This number should indicate to employers that workplace violence is a real threat that requires thought and preparation to effectively mitigate.

In Ontario, employers are required to take steps to prevent workplace violence. In 2009, the Ontario government amended the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”) to expressly address workplace violence, whether it is perpetrated by employees, management or members of the public. Since harassment and bullying often precipitate acts of workplace violence, the OHSA also creates a number of obligations specific to workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, in its own right.

The OHSA requires employers to conduct an assessment of their workplace and identify the risks of workplace violence that may arise in their particular working conditions. Employers must then develop and implement a workplace violence program which includes training as well as written policies and procedures posted in the workplace. Re-assessments must be performed as often as is necessary to ensure that the employer’s program is adequately protecting its employees from workplace violence.

A workplace violence program must include measures to control the risks identified in the assessments. Programs must also include measures to summon immediate assistance if violence occurs, allow workers to report incidents or threats, and set out procedures for how to investigate incidents or threats.

Ontario is the first Canadian jurisdiction to specifically address domestic violence in the workplace in its health and safety legislation. If an employer is aware or ought to be aware that domestic violence may occur in the workplace, the employer must take every reasonable precaution to protect the worker from such abuse.

While such incidents can be unpredictable, there are many pre-emptive steps that employers should consider taking regarding workplace violence.

Employees should be trained to remove themselves from any violent or potentially violent situation, call for help, and not to intervene. The contact information for building security and/or local emergency response teams should be posted in the workspaces. Depending on the nature of the workplace, employers may consider installing a duress button, implementing lockdown protocols or designating a space in the workplace as a safe room with a telephone and a door that can be locked.

Additionally, with respect to dismissing an employee, it is generally not advisable to conduct a termination meeting on a Friday or in the last two weeks preceding a holiday period. Granting terminated employees access to employee assistance programs and outplacement counselling can be effective ways of mitigating the risk of workplace violence. More than one employer representative should attend termination meetings and those conducting the termination meeting should have quick access to security personnel.

Employers should keep in mind that preventative measures must be reasonable under the circumstances. Overzealous security personnel who assault, search, detain or otherwise unnecessarily humiliate an employee may spur litigation. Similarly, use of surveillance technology and intrusions into employee privacy can also expose employers to liability.

While incidents of workplace violence can be sudden and unpredictable, an effective workplace violence strategy may prevent these incidents from occurring and minimize the harm done should they occur.

Note that in 2016, the Ontario Government passed Bill 132, which made additions to the Occupational Health and Safety Act provisions concerning workplace harassment.