The risks of workplace violence

By Glenn French and Paul Morgan
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/15/2001

Too many Canadians believe that violence in the workplace is not a major issue in our society. However, many surveys have found that violence — both physical and psychological — is present in many workplaces. And sexual harassment has been the largest growing area of human rights complaints in Ontario over the past two decades.

Preventing and managing workplace violence is a joint responsibility of management and workers. Many collective agreements have incorporated clauses with this purpose in recent years. In addition, legal safeguards need to be strengthened.

Another route to improving this situation is for workplaces to develop and implement appropriate programs to prevent workplace aggression. Components of such programs include:

•policies on violence;

•protocols on handling incidents;

•risk assessment processes;

•effective incident reporting and investigation procedures;

•critical incident management plans;

•training and educational programs; and

•integration of community resources where appropriate.

Without such preventive measures, organizations can expect to absorb costs associated with this growing phenomena in the form of increased grievances, occupational health claims, litigation, the erosion of productivity and a tarnished corporate image.

Long before Pierre Lebrun tragically shot five of his co-workers at an Ottawa transit terminal in 1998, much had been written about the potential increase in workplace violence in Canada. But we sheltered ourselves by branding such renegade behaviour as either mental illness or an American phenomenon.

It takes only one or two conspicuous incidents to bring people to the realization that Canada is not immune. In fact, by scratching the surface of Canadian workplaces we see that workplace violence and aggression, in a variety of forms, has not only germinated in Canada but is quietly growing.

There is great difficulty in arriving at a clear definition of violence, let alone gathering statistically reliable data on aggression at work. The National Academy of Science, in the United States, defines violent or aggressive conduct as “behaviours by individuals that intentionally threaten (or attempt to or actually) inflict physical harm on others or on oneself.” Although succinct and compelling, this definition excludes violence that is exclusively psychological, including emotional abuse and the systematic infliction of fear and anxiety.

Perhaps a more comprehensive definition of workplace violence might be: “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work.”

The Canadian experience

Research funded by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1996 suggests that Canada ranks high in the world of workplace violence that takes the form of assaults and sexual harassment. The ILO survey interviewed more than 2,000 Canadian employees and found that:

•9.7 per cent of women said they had been victims of “sexual incidents” on the job;

•five per cent of women and 3.9 per cent of men reported being assaulted at work, including various forms of threats and bullying; and

•Canada ranks fourth in the world when it comes to workplace aggression.

There is other evidence that women in particular face increased risks of violence while on the job.

In 1993, Statistics Canada interviewed more than 12,000 women both inside and outside the workplace; 51 per cent indicated they had experienced either physical or sexual attacks, 18 per cent of which resulted in physical injury.

A 1994 Canadian Union of Public Employees health and safety survey stated that nearly 70 per cent of respondents experienced “verbal aggression” at work. In addition, 40 per cent said they had been struck while in the workplace and an additional 30 per cent said they had been grabbed or scratched.

The Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence (CIWV) is now at the midpoint of a two-year national survey of workplaces. The results to date overwhelmingly support the generally held belief that workplace aggression is trending upwards in all industrial sectors, most notably health, education and service industries. Respondents cited increased costs in grievances, time lost, productivity short falls and a range of other negative ramifications.

The current laws

Current legal safeguards in Canada are in many cases vague and fragmented.

British Columbia leads the way by including specific clauses in its occupational health and safety legislation covering workplace violence (Regulation 296/97). It requires employers to conduct risk assessments and establish relevant policies and procedures, as well as adhere to the duty to warn employees where potential dangers exist.

Saskatchewan has progressive policies and procedures in its occupational health and safety regulations, which came into force in December, 1996 (Regulation 37). Within these regulations Saskatchewan defines violence as any threatening behaviour which would give a worker reasonable cause for alarm.

Most recently, The Canada Labour Code has been amended. Although the specific regulations have yet to be made public, one can be assured that a greater legal onus will be placed on federally regulated employers to take steps to protect employers.

Legislators are now beginning to look seriously at the issue of workplace violence and aggression with a view towards prevention and response. Employers are increasingly held to a higher standard in protecting employees from violent and aggressive incidents within the workplace — particularly when employers are aware of violent incidents and fail to respond.

The costs of workplace violence and aggression

Although difficult to pinpoint, the costs of allowing workplace aggression to proliferate can be estimated to reach staggering proportions. Studies have found the cost of employee absenteeism, a recognized by-product of workplace violence, is growing significantly. While there are many factors in this increase, employers would be short-sighted not to consider the role violence and aggression in the workplace play in absentee rates.

More than 90 per cent of respondents to the CIWV study had concrete evidence of the impact aggression, citing increased grievances, absenteeism, security incidents, litigation and a range of other disturbing trends resulting from aggression.

The costs of these problems, combined with legislative changes, make a strong case for the need for employers to take action.

Ignoring violence exposes organizations to:

•lawsuits;

•human rights challenges;

•occupational health and safety violations;

•lost working time;

•decreased morale; and

•unnecessary turnover.

Proactive steps

There are any number of steps a progressive workplace can take to address the issue of workplace aggression. Appreciating that it can happen at any work site is a critical first step. The problem is not an epidemic, nor is Canada experiencing workplace violence to the degree that exists in the United States, but Canadian employers, and society in general, can no longer afford to simply deny that it is an issue.

The workplace audit: Before launching any initiative, it is important to determine the nature and extend of the problem in a workplace. An audit need not be a daunting process, rather it is a straightforward attempt to gather information. This can be done through:

•a confidential survey;

•focus groups;

•incident reports collected by HR or corporate security; and

•occupational health reports.

Policy: At a minimum, a violence policy should include the purpose, scope and application. It should cover employees at all levels including contractors, customers, students and any other pertinent individuals for that matter.

A definition of violence should also be included.

The policy should outline:

•responsibilities of all stakeholders;

•processes in place to prevent and report incidents of violence;

•procedures for investigating and resolving complaints; and

•the consequences of policy violations.

The policy should reinforce:

•the importance of reporting all incidents, ensuring confidentiality and protection from reprisals;

•the organization’s commitment to advise employees of potential risks; and

•the organization’s commitment to provide victims of violence with protection and support services.

Make a commitment to providing training and education to employees at all levels about preventing violence. Where appropriate, cross-reference other related policies, such as sexual harassment or disability management.

Procedures: A clear set of procedures needs to be in place, directing individuals when a potential policy violation occurs. This would include:

•where and how to report occurrences;

•what happens when a report is made; and

•safeguards for confidentiality.

The most important assets an organization has is its employees and its corporate reputation. Risking both on the belief a workplace is immune to violence is short sighted and in the end bad business.

Glenn French is national research director of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, a clearinghouse for information on the subject. Paul Morgan is the organization’s CEO. For more information contact (416) 760-8505 or visit www.workplaceviolence.ca (operational January, 2001).

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