May 2010

North of 49°
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New Ontario Law Confronts On-the-Job Violence

Changes to Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act that strengthen protections for employees from workplace violence and harassment go into effect June 15, and IBEW leaders throughout the province are working to make sure members know their rights under the bill's new provisions.

Bill 168, which was passed by the legislature last fall, gives employees the right to refuse work if they believe a violent situation could endanger themselves or their co-workers.

The legislation mandates that employers must develop internal policies to deal with the threat of workplace violence and harassment and inform employees of their rights regarding these new regulations.

"The incidence of workplace violence, bullying and harassment are increasing at an alarming rate," said Toronto Local 636 Education and Training Officer Paddy Vlanich. "In passing this bill, a victory for all workers, the government has recognized this and is finally doing something about it."

Giving impetus to the bill was the high-profile death of 37-year-old Lori Dupont in 2005. Dupont, a nurse, was stabbed to death by one of her co-workers—a former boyfriend—during her morning shift at the Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor.

Months before, she had complained to hospital management about her assailant's frequent violent threats and harassing behavior, even seeking a restraining order against him.

For more than a decade, a coalition of labour unions, women's groups and other workplace safety advocates called for new government regulations to protect workers from the kind of on-the-job violence—much of it directed toward women—that led to Dupont's death.

"We must take every measure possible in the legislature, at the bargaining table and in the workplace to ensure that violence against women in all its forms is ended," said Ontario Federation of Labour Secretary-Treasurer Irene Harris in a statement issued by the federation.

The legislation defines workplace violence as not only the use of physical force, but statements or behavior that could be interpreted as a threat.

"If a worker has reason to believe that they are at risk of workplace violence, they will have the right to remove themselves just as if they were facing any other safety hazard," Vlanich said.

The bill also applies to domestic abuse situations. Many incidents of workplace violence involve victims being targeted at work by abusive spouses or family members.

Vlanich has written a summary of the bill's provisions for provincial IBEW leaders and is preparing to lead workshops on implementing violence prevention plans for shop stewards and local officers later this spring. Vlanich said he is focused on raising awareness of the law and making sure members know their rights.

"No one should have to put up with threats and violence at work," said First District Vice President Phil Flemming. "This bill makes clear that there is zero tolerance for on-the-job harassment in Ontario."