Workers Health & Safety Centre

Ontario proposes expanded protection against workplace harassment

Ontario proposes expanded protection against workplace harassment
Proposed changes to Ontario health and safety law would define sexual harassment and add greater employer duties to investigate workplace harassment in all its forms.
Bill 132, Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, proposes amendments to six pieces of legislation to set in place a plan for addressing sexual harassment in workplaces and post-secondary institutions in particular. The government bill, introduced by Hon Tracy MacCharles, Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, carried at first reading.

Workplace sexual harassment—One of many forms of harassment

According to the Ministry of Labour existing language in the Occupational Health and Safety Act (the Act) is intended to cover all forms of harassment, defining workplace harassment as "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." As such the existing definition was drafted to cover all 15 prohibited grounds for harassment as set out under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, among them sex, religion and disability. In addition the Ministry says this language prohibits psychological and personal harassment.
So although Bill 132 specifies and defines sexual harassment, all other prohibited grounds would not receive the same attention.
Still, workers across all sectors are at risk of workplace sexual harassment. Recent surveys have found almost 30 per cent of Canadians surveyed report being sexually harassed at work, while three-quarters of them report sexual harassment happened more than once. Women were four times as likely to experience harassment. The majority of those surveyed never reported the unwanted behaviour to their employer.

Expanded employer duties—For all forms of harassment

Regardless, Bill 132 would expand employers’ existing duties to report and investigate all forms of harassment, including:
  • setting up procedures and measures for workers to report incidents to someone other than their supervisor or employer, if those persons are the alleged harasser
  • establishing how information obtained during harassment investigations may be disclosed
  • ensuring investigations are appropriate to the circumstances
  • communicating, in writing, the results of a harassment investigation to the worker and alleged harasser (if they’re an employee)
  • reviewing, at least annually, the harassment program.

Ministry of Labour health and safety inspectors would also have new powers to order harassment investigations, at the expense of the employer, by an impartial, qualified person.
The Bill though, restricts access to harassment investigation reports, deeming them not to be health and safety reports under the Act. Consequently, employers would not be required to share them with the joint health and safety committee.

Related issues left unaddressed

Also absent from Bill 132 is any proposal to amend the Act to require a harassment prevention program (similar to one required for violence)—a significant flaw in the existing legislation. Further, unlike other Canadian jurisdictions which have enacted working alone regulations, none have been proposed for Ontario, leaving unaddressed one of the most significant risk factors for workplace violence and harassment.
If passed, the changes would come into effect July 1, 2016.
Bill 132 follows on the heels of preliminary work by the government-appointed Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment. This spring the Committee held public consultations on issues related to violence and harassment. An interim report issued this summer found that sexual violence is an unacceptable yet common reality in Ontario workplaces. The report further identifies those who work at night, in isolation or with unstable persons, as being at increased risk for violence and harassment. The proposed bill comes ahead of the Committee’s final report due December 10, 2015.

WHSC can help

Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act places significant existing duties on employers relating to workplace violence and harassment. The Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) can help workplaces meet these obligations and plan for new ones. The WHSC offers a three-hour Workplace Violence and Harassment Prevention Training program designed to help workplace parties better understand workplace violence, harassment and bullying and to fully comply with the legal obligations. The WHSC also offers compliance checklists for both employers and workers and fact sheets on workplace violence, harassment and bullying. 
Need information? Check out WHSC Workplace Violence Resources.
Other related resources:
Ontario’s Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment releases interim report.
Want to read the Select Committee for Sexual Harassment and Violence Interim Report?
To learn more:
Call 1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a WHSC training services representative.