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Is driving a bus unsafe? It depends who you ask….

Public transit is an integral part of Canada’s national transportation system and as such, the safety of bus drivers is federally regulated under the Canada Labour Code (“CLC”), (as well as other provincial laws i.e., in Ontario, Labour Relations Act, 1995 and Toronto Transit Commission Labour Disputes Resolution Act, 2011). A recent investigation and ruling by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (“HRSDC”) has found that OC Transpo, the public transit operator in Canada’s capital city, is not doing enough to protect its bus drivers from workplace violence as required under the CLC.

This month’s column will take a closer look at bus driver safety through the dual lens of the recent HRSDC decision and the growing number of bus driver assaults reported across Canada. While the immediate context is the safety of bus drivers, many of the legal requirements and violence prevention measures identified here have application to other employers, job types and industry sectors.

Violence against bus drivers in Canada

Statistics published by the Amalgamated Transit Union (the “Transit Union”) suggest that over 2.000 assaults are committed against bus drivers across Canada each year. In a recent news release, the Transit Union cited a number of recent, serious attacks as evidence of an escalation of violence against Canadian bus drivers.

OC Transpo is a public transit service provider operating over 1000 buses and 3 trains servicing 370,000 daily riders in the Ottawa area. The prevalence of assaults, threats and disturbing behaviours exhibited towards OC Transpo bus drivers has been well documented. Between 2010 and 2012 there were 120 incidents of assault against OC Transpo bus drivers, 47 of which involved spitting, 43 of which involved the driver being struck or pushed, with 19 involving threats against drivers. The psychological impact on bus drivers who are attacked can be life-altering as was the case for one OC Transpo driver who recounted the vicious assault he experienced in a recent radio interview.

It is not only drivers who are at risk of violence on public transit systems. A recent report from the Ottawa Police Service states that 85 sexual assaults have occurred on the OC Transpo transit system since 2008, the vast majority of which have occurred on buses. This number is all-the-more troubling given the fact that OC Transpo was only aware of 55 of these incidents, which have escalated to a high of 22 incidents in 2012, with 11 incidents in the first half of 2013. The risk of violence on OC Transpo buses is clear, present and (seemingly) growing.

It is not only the Ottawa public transit system that has experienced troubling rates of driver assaults. In Sudbury, a recent physical assault of a bus driver was the fifth such incident in a span of seven months. A bus driver suffered a broken jaw and a fellow driver was assaulted with a hypodermic needle in two very recent and serious assaults on the Kelowna transit system. A Montreal bus driver was assaulted in April, 2013, a Brampton bus driver was assaulted in May, 2013, an Abbottsford bus driver was viciously assaulted last month, and just this month a bus driver was assaulted in St. Catherines. Many more cases exist and help to illustrate the fact that bus driver assaults are relatively common and appear to be growing in frequency and severity in some parts of the country.

The response from Transit System Authorities to bus driver assaults

Returning to Ottawa, it appears that OC Transpo has been wrestling with the issue of bus driver assaults for some time. In a 2011 news article, OC Transpo was reported to have been considering the introduction of surveillance cameras on buses following a number of threats and assaults against drivers. As stated in the news article,

Talk of installing cameras on buses is once again on the agenda of city officials, and this time the plan just might be implemented.”

Two years later there are no cameras on OC Transpo buses but in the wake of the recent driver assaults, discussions about cameras have been resurrected. It remains to be seen whether the issue of surveillance cameras will again be passed over, only to resurface the next time a serious assault is committed on a city bus.

In Sudbury, the Regional Transit Authority has formed the Sudbury Transit Taskforce to specifically address the risk of violence against drivers. All buses in Sudbury will soon be outfitted with a silent alarm which connects directly to a Supervisor who can listen in live. Sudbury City Council has approved funding to equip all City buses with video surveillance cameras after an earlier successful pilot project. The Transit Taskforce in Sudbury has also committed to conduct testing and analysis of protective screens for drivers.

Following the two vicious assaults of bus drivers in Kelowna, a spokesperson for BC Transit insisted that attacks against drivers are not increasing and was quoted in local media circles advising there will be “no security changes on Kelowna Transit buses“. When asked about protective screens for drivers in a recent radio interview, the BC Transit spokesperson said

We don’t believe a protective screen will do anything except possibly cause more damage”.

Instead, BC Transit supports enhanced bus driver training and harsher sentencing for people who assault bus drivers.

For their part, the various Locals of the Amalgamated Transit Union and its Canadian Council are calling for more cameras on buses and/or stiffer sentencing for those who assault bus drivers. With support from both the Transit Union and transit system operators, a Liberal MP introduced a private member’s Bill on June 12th, 2013 aimed at changing the Criminal Code to allow for harsher penalties for those who commit assaults on bus drivers. Earlier attempts to make similar changes to the Criminal Code were unsuccessful, including “Bregg’s Law” in 2011, named after an Edmonton bus driver who was savagely beaten by a passenger in 2009.

With rare exception it appears that public transit system operators in Canada have responded to bus driver assaults by discussing (and in some cases implementing) video surveillance cameras, panic alarms and bus driver training, as well as advocating for harsher criminal penalties for those who commit assaults on bus drivers.

Requirements under the law

Under Part XX of the Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Regulations (“COHSR”) – Violence Prevention in the Workplace, which came into force in 2008, public transit system operators are required to meet a number of legal requirements in protecting bus drivers from violence, including:

  1. Adopt a broad definition of workplace violence; defined as, “any action, conduct, threat or gesture of a person towards an employee…that can reasonably be expected to cause harm, injury or illness to that employee”. [Section 20.2]
  2. Develop a workplace violence prevention policy. [Section 20.3]
  3. Identify all factors that contribute to workplace violence. [Section 20.4]
  4. Assess the potential for workplace violence. [Section 20.5]
  5. Develop and implement systematic controls to eliminate or minimize workplace violence or a risk of workplace violence to the extent reasonably practicable. [Section 20.6]
  6. Review the effectiveness of the workplace violence prevention measures in the workplace and update them whenever there is a change that compromises the effectiveness of those measures. [Section 20.7]
  7. Develop and implement emergency notification measures and procedures for response to workplace violence. [Section 20.8]
  8. Resolve and/or investigate all cases of workplace violence. [Section 20.9]
  9. Provide instruction and training on the factors that contribute to workplace violence to each employee exposed to workplace violence or at risk of workplace violence. [Section 20.10]

This robust legal framework is in place to act as a handrail for transit system operators in identifying and assessing the risk factors for violence, implementing clear policies and procedures, and developing a holistic program of violence prevention and response measures commensurate with the evolving risks faced by bus drivers working across different settings and operating contexts.

The HRSDC ruling against OC Transpo

The HRSDC investigation and ruling came about as a result of an OC Transpo driver who refused to return to work several months after being assaulted on the job in March, 2013. In refusing to work, the driver stated that he felt OC Transpo had not done enough to prevent further attacks.

While the exact wording of the HRSDC decision is not available, Ottawa City Solicitor Rick O’Connor quoted the ruling in a letter to transit commissioners, stating that HRSDC had found that it is dangerous for the driver “to perform his bus operator duties where he is exposed to members of the public, as a lack of systematic controls exist to prevent a workplace violence-related injury similar to the one he suffered on March 26, 2013” (emphasis added).

The gist of the HRSDC ruling appears to be that:

  • in the wake of bus driver assaults, OC Transpo is not doing enough “systematically” to address the risk of violence to bus drivers, and
  • OC Transpo and the Transit Union must work together to improve the overall effectiveness of workplace violence prevention measures and risk controls.

In a rare moment of solidarity, both OC Transpo and the Transit Union have expressed their disapproval of the ruling. In stating its intention to appeal the HRSDC decision, the Ottawa City Solicitor’s office described the ruling as, “vague and ambiguous“. For its part, the Transit Union also disavowed the ruling, stating,

I would have preferred that he give an actual directive as to what needs to be done to correct the problem. Is it additional training, shields for the drivers, or is it something else?”

What works in preventing violence against bus drivers?

Violence against bus drivers has been around since the advent of mass public transportation. While there is surprisingly little Canadian research on bus driver assault and violence prevention, there are many other available resources including a comprehensive North American report, TCRP Synthesis 93 – Practices to Protect Bus Operators From Passenger Assault (the “TCRP report”), published by the Transit Cooperative Research Program (“TCRP”) in 2011.

In recognizing that information about transit challenges such as bus driver safety is often “fragmented, scattered, and unevaluated” the TCRP’s mandate is to search out and synthesize “useful knowledge from all available resources” and to “provide a systematic means for assembling and evaluating such useful information and to make it available to the entire transit community.”

The TCRP report identifies and evaluates numerous examples of measures and practices aimed at preventing bus driver assaults on American and Canadian public transit systems. The survey used to inform the report was responded to by a number of Canadian transit system operators, making the findings of the report highly relevant to the protection of Canadian bus drivers.

The full range of findings and conclusions contained in the TCRP report are too many and varied to cover in this limited forum, but the following key findings are particularly instructive:

  • The highest-risk time periods for bus driver assaults are the late evening/overnight/early morning hours followed by the afternoon peak period.
  • Verbal threats, intimidation, harassment and spitting are the most problematic issues and should be closely monitored/tracked as they are common pre-cursors to more serious physical attacks on bus drivers.
  • Primary factors contributing to bus operator assaults are fare enforcement and intoxicated passengers/drug users, followed by rule enforcement other than fare enforcement, school/youth-related violence and mental illness.
  • A high percentage of assaults are instigated by fare issues (i.e., fare evasion, short pay, transfer disputes, questionable fare media, or the lack of ID for special fares).
  • Transit system operators believe that a significant number of assaults may have been instigated by the behavior or action of the bus operator and thus driver training in conflict mitigation and diversity is seen as a top priority.
  • Many transit systems use some type of policing or security patrols but there are challenges in maintaining any type of regular security presence on buses due to budget and resource restraints.
  • On-board technology includes radio/phone two-way communications, video surveillance, emergency silent alarms, panic buttons connected to a head sign, automatic vehicle location technology and audio surveillance.
  • A number of transit system operators reported using/testing operator barriers or protective enclosures.

Clearly there are numerous examples of current and emerging best practices available to assist Canadian transit system operators in preventing bus driver assaults. The findings within the TCRP report show the critical importance of collecting a wide range of data about the nature of the violence problem faced by drivers in a particular transit authority. Based on a depth of knowledge of the specific threats faced by different drivers on different routes at different times, a transit authority can sculpt a relevant and appropriate violence prevention program to manage the risk.

Broader implications of the HRSDC ruling

According to media reports the HRSDC ruling states that OC Transpo has until August 31, 2013 to “come up with a workplace violence prevention program, which outlines the employer’s obligation to dedicate resources to address workplace violence and assist employees who have been exposed to workplace violence”. Implicit in this ruling is the message that OC Transpo, and potentially many other transit system operators, need to more fully evaluate the risks to its drivers (particularly following a serious attack) and take further, tangible steps to systematically reduce the risk of bus driver assaults. Given such a potential reality check, it is hardly surprising that OC Transpo has appealed the HRSDC decision.

In its ruling, the HRSDC may be sending a broader message to Canadian transit system operators that they need to adopt a more holistic approach in protecting bus drivers from violence on the job. The tendency for transit authorities in Canada to immediately turn to video surveillance in the wake of bus driver assaults has been demonstrated again and again yet drivers continue to be assaulted on buses with video cameras each and every day across North America (see just a few of many recent examples here, here, here and here.)

What the TCRP research (and common sense) tells us is that video cameras may assist in identifying the perpetrator after an assault, but only measures like protective screens are purpose-designed to prevent physical assaults on bus drivers. This realization prompted the Toronto Transit Commission to install protective screens on all of its 2000+ buses and 247 light rail vehicles several years ago. The Winnipeg transit authority and Coast Mountain Bus Company are also in the process of equipping their bus fleets with such screens after extensive evaluation.

Research conducted by this author for delivery to undergraduate students in crime prevention lectures also supports the use of protective screens, as described in a recent news article and television news feature. In England, where protective screens have been in use on buses for over twenty years, a Court recently found that a transit authority in one of the country’s largest cities had breached its duty of care to protect bus drivers from assault by not installing protective screens.

The point is not to suggest that protective screens are the right prescription for all buses. Rather, it is to suggest that all options should be on the table when it comes to protecting bus drivers from violence. In this regard, the recent statements attributed to a BC Transit spokesperson after two serious bus driver assaults in Kelowna appear antithetical to the broader message coming out of the HRSDC ruling. The spokesperson was quoted in local media reports, saying she “isn’t sure what can be done to prevent such random attacks” but that protective screens will “[not] do anything except possibly cause more damage“. To coin a well worn but particularly apt phrase, this type of thinking is part of the problem; not the solution.

If upheld, the recent ruling by HRSDC may herald a new approach to assault prevention on buses in which Canadian transit authorities more thoroughly identify and evaluate all risk factors, consult the body of research on best practices, test and evaluate the best options, and implement an integrated set of measures designed to address the unique risk factors faced by bus drivers on different routes at different times within each public transit system.

David Hyde
David Hyde and Associates

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David Hyde

Security and business risk consultant at David Hyde and Associates
David Hyde, M.Sc, CPC is a security and business risk consultant, author and educator with 26 years of broad-based leadership experience. He is principal consultant with David Hyde and Associates and in this role is a trusted advisor to a number of Canada’s top corporations on operational and reputational due diligence matters. Read more
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2 thoughts on “Is driving a bus unsafe? It depends who you ask….
  • David Hyde says:

    One day after this column was published information came to light about another serious assault against an OC Transpo bus driver. In this latest incident, a relief driver was called in for a late run on a Friday night. The bus was running 15 minutes late and was near the end of its run when a solitary, impatient man on the bus exited swearing at and punching the driver in the face on his way out. The driver suffered a broken nose and remains off work.

    Here is the link to a news report on the latest assault:

    It’s unfortunate that in the face of escalating violence against its drivers, the employer in this case is expecting a federal regulator (HRSDC) to identify the specific violence prevention measures it should have in place to protect its drivers. It would seem to me that the transit authority is best-positioned to implement an effective violence prevention program based on the unique risk factors faced on its transit system……

  • Mike Lobban says:

    Well written article David. I am an operator with OC and I always look forward to your articles. Finally, someone did their research and is getting to the bottom of the mess we call OC Transpo. Very fair article. Both sides are well represented. Just for the record, I am a very senior operator ( 32 years) and I have been spit upon three times, assaulted twice amd threatened numorous times and I am one of the nice guys out there. It’s a very different world we live in.