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Assessing the risk of violence at work

Companies have had almost 3 years to implement violence and harassment prevention in the workplace provisions under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act , OHSA (also known as Bill 168). Like other items in the OHSA, obligations on employers to prevent workplace violence and harassment with written policies and programs require ongoing commitment, training, and review. A few highlights of some of the requirements that employers with five or more employees must demonstrate  include:

  • Conduct a violence risk assessment (review and evaluate annually)
  • Develop written policies on dealing with both violence and harassment in the workplace
  • Develop programs to implement these policies
  • Review those policies at least once a year
  • Conduct training on these policies
  • Take reasonable precautions to protect workers from domestic violence that may occur in the workplace.

Violence risk assessment

How companies conduct the risk assessment and review and evaluate this assessment is not spelled out in the law, but “due diligence” in conducting an assessment means taking into account risks specific to the physical environment of the work and risks specific to the type of work being done. Another risk that needs to be considered is the risk of exposure to domestic violence.

Companies will want to have the documentation in place regarding their risk assessment and its annual review and evaluation to protect their organization. Compliance to a workplace risk assessment can be achieved without meeting the principles behind the legislation, but it is organizations that are committed to the principles behind the legislation who will really protect their business in the future. Employers willing to conduct risk assessments for violence and harassment in the workplace, share the results with the Joint Health Safety Committee, and re-assess “as often as is necessary” will start to see positive changes.

Complete your risk assessment “in house”

There are many good reasons beyond compliance to take the time to invest into a workplace violence assessment as an organization. It is the employees and supervisors in the organization who need to be engaged in the process. Outside consultants can help to set a framework for the assessment and the Ministry of Labour website also provides a good basic framework. The details in the framework need to be completed by employees and supervisors with intimate front line knowledge of the work environment and the work tasks.

First, when an organization shows management time and commitment invested into a violence assessment, one benefit is that employees see the organization demonstrating concern and effort to improve worker safety. The second benefit to completing the assessment in house is that the involvement of employees in the process is a way to increase and promote employee engagement. This is only effective if the results of the assessment are shared, if risks are prioritized and if employees can see some of the recommended changes implemented. Participating in the process of a violence risk assessment will be seen as meaningless paperwork if there are never any real results. The same is true of employee engagement surveys. Thirdly, the communication needed between different departments, managers, supervisors and front-line employees may have other unexpected benefits.

Small changes such as panic buttons, better lighting, employee training for emergency situations can have a huge impact when the unimaginable occurs. Unfortunately the unimaginable has already occurred in other organizations. Learning from these situations is now required for similar situations and organizations. Some risks may be common across industries, others  might be environment specific coming from workplace locations and others may be specific to the nature of the work.

Industry specific risk factors

Changes at gas stations are a good example of how a specific risk factor, “gas and dash” combined with an illegal employer policy of docking income created an increased risk of violence with tragic results. The implementation of new processes/procedures at gas pumps has now lowered this risk. The banking industry is another good example of how workplace specific risk (employees handling cash) can be controlled. Hidden panic buttons, exploding ink packets hidden in packages of bills, limitations on access to cash and extensive employee training are measures taken by almost all banks to protect employees from potential violence and to deter potential theft.

The measures taken by banks illustrate that violence assessment and control can have similar outcomes to quality improvement programs. Measures that that decreases the risk of violence to employees also often offer positive operational benefits for organizations that improve the bottom line, customer relations, service delivery or quality. Violence assessments are about safety for workers – but this is often tied to other positive results for organizations.

Finally, the real reason for doing a comprehensive in house violence assessment is to prepare for events or possibilities that may seem inconceivable. It is your frontline employees who have direct insights to possible risks. Most violent events are sudden and unexpected but that doesn’t mean that they are not preventable. It is far better to be preparing for a violent episode, of “what’s the worst that could happen” rather than to be playing the hindsight game of “if only we had.”

If this article has inspired you to dig in a little deeper to your workplace violence assessments and program, here are some links and references to help your organization get started.


Marcia Scheffler
M.A., CHRP Candidate

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Marcia Scheffler

Human Resources Generalist at Wawel Villa
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate is a Human Resources Generalist with M.A. working full-time as a Senior HR Officer. She is interested in the intersection of human resources theory and current best practices in HR. Read more
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