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Workplace violence in self-defence: what does the law say?

dog-fightI was asked the following question while facilitating a workplace violence workshop recently:

“If another worker attacks me at work, I’m going to protect myself. Does this law [the Occupational Health and Safety Act] say I can’t do that?”

In a previous post I asked YOU, the readers of First Reference Talks, to respond:

Sujata, a reader, asked an obvious question: Doesn’t one have to protect oneself from immediate danger?

Although some readers believe that any kind of workplace violence is inappropriate, there was a consensus that acting within reason to protect yourself is okay—nobody should be expected to “stand there and take a beating”.

Here’s how YOU answered our poll questions and my response to the results:

Would you advise this worker that violence in self-defence is appropriate?

No: 70%     Yes: 30%

This is an issue that needs to be covered in your workplace violence policies and subsequent training. The OHSA requires that you create a violence policy and program AND provide employees with “information and instruction . . . on the contents of the policy and program.” YOUR policies need to specify any circumstances that justify the use of violence.

Does the Occupational Health and Safety Act prohibit violence in self-defence? No: 47%     Yes: 53%

The OHSA does not prohibit any violence per se.

The OHSA defines workplace violence as:

  • The exercise of physical force, or
  • The attempt to exercise physical force, or
  • Threatening to exercise physical force . . .

. . . against a worker in a workplace.

Remember that this is a definition, not a prohibition. YOUR POLICIES need to explain exactly how an employee should react in a given situation. The OHSA requires that your violence program include:

  • Measures and procedures to control risks that expose workers to injury
  • A method of calling for help when violence occurs
  • Methods for workers to report violent acts
  • Methods for investigating, and dealing with, violent acts when they do occur

The above may suggest that employees should be encouraged to report violent acts and to avoid reacting to them with more violence.

Does your workplace violence policy address the issue of violence in self-defence?

No: 63%     Yes: 38%

The OHSA requires that every Ontario employer have policies that address the issue of workplace violence. The law itself does not specifically prohibit violence in the workplace and logically does not address the issue of defending oneself in the event of a violent act. THIS IS THE JOB OF YOUR POLICIES!

The most effective way to deal with this issue is to cover it in your own policies.

Let’s go back to the original question:

“If another worker attacks me at work, I’m going to protect myself. Does the law say I can’t do that?”

No, the OHSA does not say you can’t protect yourself. However, violence in response to violence does meet the definition of workplace violence in the OHSA.


  1. Schedule regular training sessions with your staff to discuss issues like the one raised here.
  2. Regularly assess the risk for violence in your workplace and provide workers with non-violent measures to address potential risks.
  3. Review and update your policies and programs ensuring that workers have the information they need to make intelligent decisions when confronted with potentially violent situations.

Andrew Lawson
Health and Safety/Human Rights Advisor, Learn Don’t Litigate

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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3 thoughts on “Workplace violence in self-defence: what does the law say?
  • Andrew says:

    I agree with both your comments Adam and Yosie. I think it is understandable when new legislation is passed that there is a period of adjustment.

  • A lot of the missing directives and gaps in the law will come from experience, the application of the law after a year has passed, and how the courts and tribunals end up interpreting the application of the law and/or missing directives.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks for the update Andrew. I think the only thing that’s really clear about Ontario businesses’ new obligations is that they need more and clearer direction!