In June 2010, changes to the
Occupational Health and Safety Act took effect, giving greater protection to workers from workplace harassment and violence. The changes apply to employees in provincially regulated workplaces in Ontario.


Occupational Health and Safety Act is meant to protect employees from workplace hazards. The type of workplace hazards recognized in the Act have typically included things like chemicals, machinery and working on a roof. As of June 2010, violence and harassment are also considered a workplace hazards. Recognizing violence and harassment as workplace hazards means that employers now have a responsibility to assess the risk that workplace violence may arise due to the nature of the workplace, type of work or the conditions of work.

The new rules are not just meant to protect employees from harassment at the hands of their supervisors and managers, but from anyone a worker comes into contact with at work. This includes, for example, colleagues, customers and contractors, but it can also include people with no formal connection to the workplace, such as a stranger or the husband/wife/partner of a worker.

Workplace Violence Defined

The Act defines workplace violence as:
(a) the exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker,
(b) an attempt to exercise physical force against a worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker,
(c) a statement or behaviour that it is reasonable for a worker to interpret as a threat to exercise physical force against the worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker.

Examples of workplace violence would include verbally threatening to hit a worker, leaving threatening notes or email to a workplace, shaking a fist at a worker, wielding a weapon at work, hitting or trying to hit a worker, throwing an object at a worker, sexual violence against a worker, kicking a ladder that a worker is standing on, trying to run over a worker using a vehicle or equipment. Accidents, such as pushing a worker as a result of tripping on a step, would not be included.

Intent to hurt is not required. For example, workplace violence would include a situation in which two customers are fighting and a worker is injured while intervening.

Workplace Harassment Defined

Workplace harassment means engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome. The comments or conduct would typically have to occur more than once (a pattern of behaviour), but need not occur over a long period of time (the conduct may occur over the course of a day, week, month or even years).

The type of comments and conduct that would constitute harassment is broad and can include words or actions that are offensive, humiliating, demeaning, intimidating or discriminating towards an individual or group. This can include:
  • Making jokes and innuendos that demean, ridicule, intimidate or offend;
  • Displaying or circulating offensive pictures or images;
  • Bullying;
  • Offensive or intimidating phone calls or emails; or
  • Inappropriate sexual touching, advances, suggestions or requests.
Minor disagreements or differences of opinion among workers would not be considered workplace harassment, nor would actions by the employer that have unpleasant consequences for workers, including changing work assignments, job evaluations, implementation of dress codes and disciplinary action. Any behaviour that meets the definition of workplace violence would not be considered harassment.

Employer Responsibilities

Every employer, regardless of size, must 1) prepare a policy regarding workplace violence and harassment and 2) develop a program to implement that policy. There may be a separate violence and harassment policy or it may be a single policy covering both violence and harassment. The policy must be reviewed at least annually.

If six or more workers are regularly employed at a workplace, the policy must be in writing and posted in an easily noticeable place.

A workplace violence and harassment policy should reflect an employer’s commitment to protecting workers from violence, address violence from all possible sources (customers, clients, employers, supervisors, workers, strangers, domestic/intimate partners), outline the roles and responsibilities of each party (worker, supervisor, employer) in supporting the policy and program, and be dated and signed by the highest level of management at the company.

More information to come.