Of the 2,000 Canadian employees who participated in the ILO study, 9.7% of the female respondents said they had been victims of “sexual incidents” while at work, and 5% of the female respondents (and 3.9% of the male respondents) reported being assaulted at work. (In this survey, “assault” included physical violence and various forms of threatening and bullying. “Sexual incidents” included everything from leering and sexual innuendo to rape.)
In 1993, Statistics Canada interviewed more than 12,000 women—inside and outside the workplace—and found that more than half had experienced physical or sexual attacks. As much as 18% of those women said that the attacks resulted in a physical injury.
A health and safety survey conducted by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in 1994 found that 70% of CUPE members had been victims of verbal aggression, a leading form of workplace violence. Another 40% of union members said they had been struck while at work, and 30% said they had been grabbed or scratched.
Despite these staggering statistics, legislators, union officials and employers alike have thus far been unable to agree on a clear, universally accepted definition of workplace violence. There are two issues under debate: the first is whether the term “workplace violence” should encompass only physical acts of aggression; the second, whether the aggressor’s identity should matter. For example, if the perpetrator is a client or a customer, and not an employee of the organization, should it be considered workplace violence? Each jurisdiction in Canada has its own definition of the term.
The Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence believes in the following definition: “Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. These behaviours would originate from customers or co-workers at any level of the organization. This definition would include all forms of harassment, bullying, intimidation, physical threats or assaults, robbery and other intrusive behaviours.”
The Canadian judicial system is making it increasingly clear that it is an employer’s duty to protect employees from workplace violence, in the same way that an employer is obligated to have proper health and safety measures in place to protect workers from other on-the-job hazards.
In a 2004 report titled Violence in the Workplace, Eric Roher, a leading legal expert in workplace behaviour, notes that the legal implications of failing to protect employees can be serious. Roher writes: “There are a range of possible negligence claims that can be brought against an employer. They can be initiated by an employer’s own employee or worker; or by a third party who has been harmed by an employee or worker. The victim of violence may allege that the employer has failed to discharge certain duties. This includes failure to warn of a reasonably foreseeable risk, a failure to maintain a safe workplace, negligent hiring of a person with violent propensities or negligent supervision of such a person.”
Employers must become aware of their statutory duty to provide a violence-free workplace. Now more than ever, victims of workplace violence are in search of redress and they are looking for a regulatory solution to the problem. CHM