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Health & Safety: Avoid workplace harassment and violence

A hostile workplace leads to absenteeism, greater turnover

May 29, 2023  By The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)

Photo credit: estradaanton/Adobe Stock

Workplace harassment and violence happens more often than you may think. According to a recent national study (published in 2022) conducted by Western University, the University of Toronto and the Canadian Labour Congress, 71 per cent of respondents experienced at least one form of harassment or abuse at work in the two years prior to completing the study survey.

Any worker or workplace, across any sector or industry, can be affected by harassment and violence. These acts can have devastating effects, including physical and psychological harm, a hostile working environment, and increased absenteeism and turnover. 

All workers have the right to feel safe, protected and respected at work. To help reduce the risk to workers who may work alone, in skeleton crews, or in precarious environments, having a harassment and violence prevention program can help.  

Understanding harassment and violence
An important first step in ensuring a safe work environment is to define and understand the many forms of harassment and violence.


Whether a series of incidents or a single act, workplace harassment can involve unwelcome behaviours or comments meant to demean, embarrass, or provoke a reaction. Workplace violence, including physical assault, psychological trauma, family violence, and sexual assault, can be any action, threat or gesture that can cause harm, injury or illness. Bullying is also a form of harassment and violence and can involve acts that cause psychological harm or negative physical contact. 

Are your workers at risk?
Some work settings are more vulnerable to harassment and violence than others due to their location, activity, or hours of operation. Working alone or in small numbers, and in the late evening or early morning can put workers at greater risk for this unwelcome behaviour. Other factors that can put someone at greater risk include gender, persons in equity-seeking groups, and persons with disabilities.


Since each workplace is unique, it is important to understand what can contribute to harassment and violence. A risk assessment can help determine which hazards are present and the risk they represent to your workers. Starting with an inspection of the work environment, focus on the tasks being done, and your administrative and work practices. Consider internal factors such as your work culture, conditions, activities, and organizational structure. Also consider external factors, including work site locations, clients, customers, and any history of family violence. 

It’s good practice to review previous incidents of harassment and violence by consulting existing incident reports, first aid records, and health and safety committee records, if applicable. You might also request information from any organizations or industry associations you’re associated with, the union (if applicable), or from the workers’ compensation board, and occupational health and safety regulators.

Once you’ve collected this information, review it for trends and identify the occupations and locations that you believe are most at risk. Record the results of your assessment and use this to develop a prevention program with specific steps for reducing the risk of harassment and violence.

Develop a policy
The most important aspect of any prevention program is management or leadership commitment, best communicated through a written policy. Your harassment and violence prevention policy should be developed with input from workers or representatives including the health and safety committee and the union (if present). It should apply to management, workers and anyone who has a relationship with the organization and should be easily accessible to everyone.

The policy should inform workers about what behaviours are inappropriate and unacceptable at work, what to do when incidents occur, how to report them, and the procedure that will be followed when they are reported.

You can help foster a culture of safety by encouraging workers to report any incidents they experience or witness, without fear of reprisal, by introducing a confidential reporting process. 

Outline the procedures for investigating and resolving incidents and determine how information about potential risks will be communicated to workers while maintaining confidentiality of the parties involved.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well being of workers in Canada by providing information, training, education, systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and injury and illness prevention. www.ccohs.ca

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