WORKPLACE VIOLENCE: How to Conduct a Hazard Assessment

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Conducting hazard assessments is a fundamental requirement of Ontario Bill 168 and other Canadian workplace violence laws. Hazard assessments are the bread and butter of a safety coordinator’s job. But assessing the risk of violence is a lot different from assessing physical and mechanical hazards, such as pinchpoints or excessive noise. Violence is rooted in human behaviour. But although predicting behaviour is impossible, we do know that the risk of violence is influenced by certain aspects of the workplace and conditions of work. A hazard assessment requires employers to examine these factors and identify potential dangers—and, of course, take steps to correct them.

We’ll explain what the OHS laws say about workplace violence hazard assessments and how to conduct them. There’s also a chart that spells out the workplace violence hazard assessment requirements in each jurisdiction’s OHS law and a Model Violence Risk Assessment Checklist.

OHSINSIDER: Members can download several Model Violence Risk Assessment Checklists, a Model Violence Risk Assessment Questionnaire and links to online workplace violence resources. In addition, they can download for FREE the webinar, “Complying with Workplace Violence Laws: How to Do Your Risk Assessment.”

Defining Our Terms

“Workplace violence” means not only actual or attempted conduct or gestures that cause or could cause physical injury to a worker but also threatening statements or behaviours that give a worker reasonable cause to believe that he’s at risk of injury.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

The duty to protect workers from violence is imposed by the OHS laws in two different ways:

The 8 Specific Duty Jurisdictions

The OHS laws of eight jurisdictions—Fed, AB, BC, MB, NS, ON, PE and SK—specifically require employers to take steps to address the risk of violence in the workplace. (Violence requirements in NS and SK apply to only certain types of workplaces, such as healthcare facilities, pharmacies, taxi services, retail stores that are open at night and places that sell alcohol. However, NS and SK guidelines recommend that all employers comply with the requirements.) Ontario became the most recent jurisdiction to add specific workplace violence requirements to its OHS laws when Bill 168 took effect on June 15, 2010. These requirements are similar in most respects to the requirements in the other 7 specific duty jurisdictions.

With the exception of Saskatchewan, all of these jurisdictions specifically require employers to conduct a workplace violence hazard assessment. For example, Sec. 32.0.3 of Ontario’s OHS Act requires employers to assess the risks of workplace violence that may arise, taking into account the nature of the workplace, the type of work or the conditions of work.

In Saskatchewan, the duty to conduct a violence risk assessment is implied. The OHS Regulations require certain employers to have workplace violence policies that include, among other things, identification of the workplaces that have or may reasonably be expected to experience violence and the job positions that have been or may reasonably be expected to be exposed to violent situations. In addition, under Sec. 22.(1)(b) of the Regulations, identifying existing and potential health and safety hazards is an essential element of the OHS program that all employers are required to implement.

The 6 Implied Duty Jurisdictions

Six jurisdictions—NB, NL, NT, NU, QC and YT—don’t specifically address workplace violence in their OHS laws. But the OHS act in each of these jurisdictions has a “general duty clause” that requires employers to provide a reasonably safe workplace and protect workers from foreseeable hazards. Protecting workers from workplace violence is considered part of this general duty. And as with other workplace hazards, conducting a hazard assessment is integral to managing the risks of violence.

Insider Says: In some jurisdictions, including Ontario, the requirements in the OHS laws cover not only workplace violence but also harassment. Québec imposes a specific duty to address “workplace psychological harassment” on employers in its labour standards law. An act respecting labour standards defines “workplace psychological harassment” as unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures that affect a worker’s “physical integrity.” Thus, this requirement applies to not only non-physical acts of harassment but also more extreme forms of harassment, such as physical violence.

HOW TO COMPLY

Even if you’re an old pro at conducting hazard assessments, you’re likely to find the violence hazard assessment very tricky. To do it effectively, you need to know the answers to the following questions:

Who Should Conduct the Assessment?

The duty to conduct a violence risk assessment is on the employer. However, members of management shouldn’t be the only participants. In fact, some jurisdictions require others to participate in the assessment. For example, Manitoba requires the JHSC or health and safety representative to be part of the risk assessment. Ideally, the assessment team should include the safety coordinator and representatives of management, the JHSC, workers, supervisors and the union. You might also want to consider bringing in outside security consultants who have experience in performing violence hazard assessments.

What Factors Should You Consider?

In some jurisdictions, the OHS laws list the factors that a violence risk assessment must consider. Federal OHS law includes one of the more extensive lists. Part 20.5(1) of the federal OHS Regulations requires employers to assess the potential for workplace violence by taking into account:

  • The nature of the work activities;
  • The working conditions;
  • The design of the work activities and surrounding environment;
  • The frequency of situations that present a risk of workplace violence;
  • The severity of the adverse consequences to the worker exposed to a risk of workplace violence;
  • The observations and recommendations of the workplace violence policy committee or JHSC and the workers; and
  • The measures that are already in place to prevent and protect against workplace violence.

There are three sets of factors that you should consider in your assessment, regardless of whether they’re mentioned in the OHS laws:

Physical nature of the workplace. Factors in this category revolve around the physical aspects of the workplace and its design, whether it’s a construction site, building, vehicle or forest. For example:

  • Electronic surveillance, such as security cameras;
  • Lighting;
  • Lines of sight, including blind spots;
  • Layout of furniture and cubicles;
  • Entrances and exits; and
  • Objects in the workplace that could be used as weapons, such as tools in an industrial setting or knives in a restaurant.

Type of work. Certain types of work activities carry an inherently higher risk of violence, such as handling cash. You also need to account for the people that workers encounter on the job. Thus, workers in prisons, mental health institutions or airline counters (who often have to deal with irate passengers) are typically at greater risk of violence.

Work conditions. Factors in this category include hours worked, neighbourhood and whether workers work alone, travel between sites and other things affecting how, when and where workers do their jobs.

OHSINSIDER: Members can download several Model Violence Risk Assessment Checklists, and adapt them for use in their workplace assessments.

What Information Should You Gather?

To assess the factors discussed above, the team will need to gather information. You may not realize it, but you probably already have a lot of information on violence in the workplace. Some of the existing sources of information related to workplace violence that you can refer to in the assessment include:

  • Medical and first aid records;
  • Records of disciplinary actions as a result of violence;
  • JHSC meeting minutes;
  • Union grievances;
  • Complaints of violence, harassment or other incidents that could lead to violence;
  • Security reports, such as calls to the police, thefts, security breaches, etc.; and
  • Building plans that show the workplace’s layout.

In addition, the team should review any existing workplace violence policies and rules and assess their effectiveness in light of the risks it identifies in the assessment.

The kinds of records discussed above will give you a good understanding of what’s happened in your workplace in terms of violence. But the team also needs to look outside the four walls of the workplace to the surrounding neighbourhood. It may be able to get information on crime in the area from the local police department and other companies in the area. And the team should get information on violence in similar workplaces from other companies and industry organizations.

But pulling together paperwork isn’t enough. The assessment team should also gather information by walking around the workplace itself and taking note of physical characteristics that impact the risk of violence, such as places in the parking lot where an attacker could hide or poorly lit stairwells. And it should survey workers and supervisors on their experiences with violence in the workplace.

How Should Information Be Assessed?

The team must then assess all of the information gathered. The goal of this analysis is to determine if there’s a risk of violence and, if so:

  • Types of violence most likely to occur;
  • Likely severity of the outcome of such violence;
  • Likely frequency of violent incidents;
  • Departments, work groups, job positions, etc. most vulnerable to violence;
  • Locations where violence is most likely to occur;
  • Deficiencies in the security system, physical location, policies or procedures that need to be addressed; and
  • Controls (engineering, administrative and other) that should be implemented to eliminate or reduce risk of violence.

In certain workplaces, different locations or workers may be exposed to the risk of violence in varying degrees. In such workplaces, it may be helpful as part of the assessment to designate locations or positions as high, moderate or low risk.

OHSINSIDER: Mermbers can download a Model Violence Risk Assessment Questionnaire to help them analyze the information gathered in the risk assessment.

What Should You Do with the Results?

Nova Scotia requires employers to create a report on the results of the risk assessment. And Ontario requires employers to share the results of the assessment with the JHSC, safety representative or workers. But it’s good practice in all jurisdictions for the assessment team to compile the results of the violence risk assessment into a written report, which management, the JHSC and the safety coordinator can use to develop or improve the company’s workplace violence policies and programs.

When Should You Reassess the Risk?

Conducting an initial violence risk assessment is only the starting point. You’ll need to periodically reassess the risks. For example, Nova Scotia requires a violence risk reassessment at least every five years or under certain circumstances, such as after incidents occur or significant changes to working conditions are made. Ontario’s MOL recommends that employers reassess the risk at least annually. In addition, it suggests that employers conduct a reassessment when conditions in the workplace change, such as:

  • The workplace moves or is renovated or reconfigured;
  • There are significant changes in the type of work, such as more expensive items are being sold;
  • There are significant changes in work conditions of work, such as the workplace is closing at a later hour;
  • There’s new information on the risks of workplace violence, such as risk that wasn’t identified during an earlier assessment; and
  • A violent incident occurs.

Conclusion

A workplace violence risk assessment is the first step in developing policies that protect workers from violence—and comply with the OHS laws. For those policies to be effective, however, they have to be based on accurate and complete information on the risk of violence in the workplace. Thus, it’s critical that the violence risk assessment of your workplace be thorough. Otherwise, workers will remain vulnerable to attacks—and the company vulnerable to liability.