Domestic violence policies needed

Inquest highlights Ontario’s need for workplace violence laws

The recommendations of a coroner’s inquest into the stabbing death of a nurse at a Windsor, Ont., hospital will fuel the fire for legislation explicitly banning workplace violence in Ontario, according to a labour lawyer.

“The heat’s being turned up in Ontario for employers to take responsibility and accountability for workplace violence,” said Barbara Humphrey, a partner at Stringer Brisbin Humphrey in Barrie, Ont.

In November 2005, anesthesiologist Marc Daniel stabbed Lori Dupont, a nurse at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital, and then killed himself. Daniel, who also worked at the hospital, and Dupont had been romantically involved but had broken up in February 2005.

During a three-month coroner’s inquest, the jury heard how the hospital allowed Daniel to continue practicing, despite complaints about Daniel’s threatening behaviour, such as breaking a nurse’s finger and destroying hospital equipment, and Dupont’s complaints that Daniel harassed her.

In December, the jury made 26 recommendations, including that the Ontario Ministry of Labour amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include domestic violence, abuse and harassment as factors warranting investigation at work. The jury also suggested protecting employees from emotional and psychological harm.

“We received the recommendations from the coroner’s jury and they’re under review,” said Bruce Skeaff, spokesperson for the ministry.

Seven other provinces already have workplace violence legislation in place and Saskatchewan, Quebec and Manitoba include psychological harassment.

“Usually Ontario, on employment issues, leads the pack, so it’s interesting to me that we don’t have this legislation,” said Humphrey.

Since most other jurisdictions just finalized their legislation in the last two years, it’s only a matter of time before Ontario follows suit. she said.

As an interim measure, the Ministry of Labour has directed Occupational Health and Safety inspectors to focus on workplace violence during inspections, said Humphrey.

That includes assessing factors for violence (such as working with money or dealing with the public), whether there are precautions in place, whether workers have been informed of the risks and whether supervisors and workers have been trained on strategies to address workplace violence, she said.

“The Ministry of Labour initiative does introduce, even without legislation, very clear employer responsibilities and accountabilities for workplace violence,” said Humphrey. “We’re at the point where every employer has a significant interest in having a violence prevention program.”

The jury heard from witnesses who saw Daniel harass Dupont but didn’t speak up because they didn’t know how to handle domestic violence at work. To prevent that kind of inaction, the jury recommended extensive domestic violence education and training for employees, health-care professionals and the public so they can recognize the signs and know what steps to take.

The jury also recommended hospitals have a policy to address domestic violence and abuse or harassment at work.

Employers should treat domestic violence — be it between two employees or from someone outside the organization — the same as any workplace violence, said Humphrey.

“If it’s spilling over into the workplace, even if its roots are outside the workplace, the employer should take responsibility and accountability,” she said.

Part of the problem in the Dupont case was Daniel was given too much slack for his behaviour because he held a position of power as a physician and because, as a physician, he was not employed by the hospital, said Humphrey.

To address those issues, the jury recommended a review of all Ontario hospital bylaws, to ensure they don’t tolerate disruptive behaviour from physicians, and an amendment to the Public Hospitals Act, to give hospitals the power to temporarily suspend a physician’s privileges when his behaviour puts other staff at risk.

“The board of Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital remains committed to implementing all the jury’s recommendations within our power,” said the hospital in a statement.

Of the jury’s 26 recommendations, 13 pertained to hospitals. Three of these were directed specifically to Hôtel-Dieu Grace, including a review of the hospital’s workplace violence prevention program, training physicians on violence prevention and a review of security measures.

The hospital stated implementation of these three recommendations is underway and it has approved an action plan for implementing the remaining 10 recommendations.

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