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Ontario employers beware: vexatious comments in your workplace now against the law

By CO Staff @canadaone |

Amendments to Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) come into force today that require employers to protect workers from the threat of violence or harassment at work.

The legislation is meant to protect workers from a continuum of innappropriate behaviours that can occur at work, ranging from offensive remarks to violent acts of a criminal nature. The new legislation also addresses the potential for workplace harassment to escalate into actual violence over time.

Employers must develop policies, educate employees and put in place programs to ensure that policies are followed. They will also need to create a way for employees to report incidents of violence or harassment and a process for investigating and dealing with any incidents or complaints.

What constitutes violence and harassment at work?

Workplace Violence

The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace violence as the exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker. Workplace violence can occur without actual physical harm.

Examples of workplace violence include:

  • Threats of violence, whether verbal or written;
  • Any violent action, whether shaking a fist in someone's face, hitting or throwing an object at someone, kicking an object someone is standing on, sexual violence or trying to run someone over in a vehicle.
  • Workplace Harassment

    The Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace harassment as engaging in a course of vexatious comments or conduct against a worker, in a workplace - behaviour that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome. Comments will often occur more than once over a period of time, possible during one day or over a longer time period of weeks, months or even years.

    Harassing remarks may involve unwelcome words or actions known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating or demeaning to a worker or group of workers. Intimidating, isolating or discriminatory behaviour also qualifies as harassing behaviour.

    The Ministry notes that workplace harassment often involves repeated, unwelcome words or actions, or a pattern of behaviours. These can be direct, such as demeaning jokes that belittle a targeted worker, or indirect, such as the display of inappropriate pictures in the workplace.

    The new law: what employers need to know

    The Ministry of Labour outlines the following steps employers must take to protect workers from violence and harassment:

    • Prepare policies with respect to workplace violence and workplace harassment;
    • Develop and maintain programs to implement their policies; and
    • Provide information and instruction to workers on the contents of these policies and programs.

    Workplace violence programs must also include measures and procedures for:

    • Summoning immediate assistance when workplace violence occurs or is likely to occur; and
    • Controlling risks identified during a risk assessment.

    While quite broad, the new legislation does not mean that employers cannot use appropriate correction or discipline at work. The Ministry notes that employers, managers and supervisors may still take reasonable actions that are part of the normal work function, even if there is an unpleasant consequence for the worker.

    For example, employers may still change work assignments and schedules, conduct job assessments, evaluations and inspections, and implement disciplinary action when needed. Minor disagreements between co-workers would not be considered workplace harassment under most circumstances.


    Health and safety inspectors from the Ministry of Labour will enforce the new workplace and harassment provisions of the law. They note that employers and workers should always contact police first in emergency situations, if threats or actual violence occurs at a workplace.

    There is an expectation in the business world that the vagueness of the new rules will see them defined more clearly in the courts.

    Further resources

    The following resources will help you find more information on the new law and how it affects your business.

    Workplace Violence and Harassment: Understanding the Law

    Preventing Workplace Violence And Workplace Harassment

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