The Federal Court endorses a robust approach to protection against workplace violence

The scheme recently enacted under the Canada Labour Code to address workplace violence was recently subject to its first interpretation by the courts: in PSAC v Attorney General of Canada, 2014 FC 1066, the Federal Court considered Part XX of the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, which imposes a host of obligations on employers to prevent and respond to workplace violence. The Court’s decision affirmed the broad definition of workplace violence under the Regulations, and the mandatory obligations on employers to appoint an impartial person to investigate employee complaints.

Part XX of the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations

Part XX of the Regulations, titled “Violence Prevention in the Work Place”, was enacted in 2008. It forms part of the health and safety scheme under the Code, and therefore its purpose is to prevent accidents and injury to health.

Part XX defines workplace violence as “any action, conduct, threat or gesture of a person towards an employee in their work place that can reasonably be expected to cause harm, injury or illness to that employee.” The Regulations impose several obligations on employers to address workplace violence, including:

  • To develop a workplace violence prevention policy;
  • To identify the factors that contribute to workplace violence;
  • To assess the potential for violence in the employer’s workplace, and to develop and implement controls to eliminate or minimize violence;
  • To train employees on the factors that contribute to workplace violence.

Section 20.9 of the Regulations requires the employer to appoint a “competent person” to investigate any allegation of workplace violence that comes to the employer’s attention. A “competent person” is defined as someone who is impartial and seen to be impartial, has expertise related to workplace violence, and has knowledge of the legislation. It was the interpretation of this provision that formed the subject matter of the recent Federal Court decision.

Federal Court judgment interpreting Part XX of the Regulations

On January 27, 2014, an Appeals Officer of the Occupational Health and Safety Tribunal Canada issued the Tribunal’s first decision interpreting Part XX of the Regulations. The Appeals Officer found that the complaint at issue in the case—a complaint of psychological harassment by a supervisor—did not constitute an allegation of workplace violence, and therefore the employer was under no duty to appoint an investigator. The Federal Court overturned that decision in its judgment, dated November 13, 2014. The Court’s judgment clarifies the interpretation of section 20.9 in several key respects, and supports a broad reading of the Regulations and the obligations on employers to respond to complaints of workplace violence.

  1. Harassment may constitute workplace violence

The Court clearly held that the definition of workplace violence is broad enough to include harassing conduct that causes mental or psychological harm, thus flatly rejecting the Appeals Officer’s finding that workplace violence excludes harassment. The Court held that “to find otherwise would unduly restrict the definition of work place violence and not give a purposive construction to that definition.”

  1. The Employer may not unilaterally act as investigator of a complaint of workplace violence

The Court found that employers are permitted to engage in fact-finding in order to facilitate possible resolution of employee complaints, but an employer representative cannot act as the investigator, unless the employee agrees that the representative is an impartial person. The Court therefore held that the member of management who purported to conduct an investigation in this case was not competent to do so.

  1. The obligation to appoint an impartial investigator is mandatory

The Court made a clear finding that, unless it is plain and obvious on the face of the complaint that it does not relate to workplace violence, the employer is under a mandatory duty to appoint an impartial person to investigate the complaint. The Court therefore overturned the Appeals Officer’s decision, which permitted the employer to conduct its own inquiry into the bona fides of the complaint before deciding whether to appoint an investigator.

Important gains for federally regulated workers

The Court’s conclusions in this case corrected obvious errors in the Appeals Officer’s decision: the finding that harassment may constitute violence within the meaning of the Code brings this area of the law in line with the Tribunal’s past cases interpreting similar provisions. Interestingly, it is also consistent with the definition of workplace violence articulated by the government agency established to promote workplace health and safety—the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines workplace violence broadly, and as including harassment and verbal abuse.

This judgment was nonetheless an important gain for workers, because it grants access to the mechanisms under Part XX to seek redress for harassment in the workplace. Harassment is a difficult issue, and it is often inadequately addressed by employers’ internal harassment policies. It is therefore encouraging to know that the process under Part XX—particularly, the mandatory appointment of an impartial investigator—is now available for federally regulated workers that experience harassment. The regime under Part XX differs significantly from traditional mechanisms to address harassment: the emphasis is on taking measures to prevent a recurrence. Time will tell whether this approach, rather than one focused on discipline or monetary compensation, is more effective at resolving situations of workplace harassment.

[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.]



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