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Verbal Threats in the Workplace Considered Serious Offence under Bill 168

March 06, 2012, by Corina Sibley | Work Environment and Policies

Bill 168, which went into effect on June 15, 2010, is an amendment to Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.  It has broadened the definition of harassment beyond the Ontario Human Rights definition, to include workplace harassment, which includes behaviour such as bullying and engaging in offensive conduct and behaviour towards a worker.  It has also established a duty on the part of employers to protect workers from violence in the workplace. 

Workplace violence includes statements or behaviours “that [are] reasonable for a worker to interpret as a threat to exercise physical force against the worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker.” (Section 1(c) Bill 168).  This definition was recently put to the test in a landmark arbitration decision in Kingston, ON whereby the arbitrator upheld the employer’s decision to terminate the employment of a veteran employee, with 28 years of service, for verbally threatening her co-worker; in this case, the Union President. 

The importance of this case lies in the fact that uttering a threat of physical harm in itself is considered an act of workplace violence, whether or not there is intention to follow through on it or whether the victim feels threatened by it.  In the words of the arbitrator “There was no physical assault.  However, I conclude from the evidence that the threat did cause actual harm. Hale was shaken. He was provoked to extreme anger, and he was caused to be upset. In the aftermath of the incident, as the grievor was terminated, the evidence is that he was made to be nervous and fearful. The emotional impact of a death threat is considerable, and constitutes actual harm upon its victim.”

The Bottom Line

Employees have a duty to report workplace violence in all its forms and employers have the duty to investigate them and if proven to be true, take disciplinary measures against the employee(s) in question, up to and including termination.  Ensuring employees are able to work in a safe working environment, including safety from the threats and intimidation of other workers is what Bill 168 is all about.

For the entire case file, please see http://www.canlii.org/en/on/onla/doc/2011/2011canlii50313/2011canlii50313.html

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