Workplace harassment complaints double after law takes effect

Monday, January 08, 2018

Cultural shift underway for workplace safety

Man touching woman's shoulderSexual Harassment Prevention information sheet

With several high profile cases of alleged sexual harassment, from Jian Ghomeshi to Harvey Weinstein, workplace safety culture is undergoing a major change. 

It’s been just over one year since Bill 132: Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act became law in Ontario on September 8, 2016, and Ministry of Labour complaint statistics regarding workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, has doubled.

In 2016, Bill 132 expanded the definition of “harassment” from earlier 2010 workplace anti-violence legislation to specifically include “sexual harassment.” In order to protect workers, the law requires employers to assess the risk of workplace violence, develop policies and procedures for investigating and handling complaints and incidents, provide information and instruction, and review the program at least annually.

Workplace harassment complaints increase more than 100%

In the first 10 months following Bill 132, from September 8, 2016, to June 30, 2017, the Ministry of Labour received 4,935 calls regarding workplace harassment, including sexual harassment. The calls resulted in 2,133 harassment complaints, including 156 specific to sexual harassment.

Compared to the same time frame the previous year, this is a 136 per cent increase in harassment complaints, (from 903 to 2,133); and a 114 per cent increase in sexual harassment complaints, (from 73 to 156). Keep in mind, too, that many cases of workplace harassment and sexual harassment are never reported. 

More than 1,000 Ontario workplaces issued orders

Of the 2,133 complaints, there were 1,539 field visits conducted by specially trained Dedicated Harassment and Enforcement Team MOL inspectors at 1,041 Ontario workplaces, and inspectors issued 2,168 orders and 35 requirements.

An “order” occurs when the Occupational Health and Safety Act has been contravened: for example, where the employer didn’t conduct a harassment investigation, or didn’t provide results of the investigation to the complainant. Types of orders include “forthwith” so the employer fixes the issue before the MOL leaves; a “stop work” to prevent specific work deemed unsafe; and a “timed” order to complete specific actions by a certain date. For example, employers may receive a week or two to get their programs up and running or to provide the written results of the investigation.

A “requirement” refers to the inspector’s authority to request information from an employer, typically to obtain documents and request information in order to determine if the law has been contravened. For example, a requirement may be to provide a copy of the workplace harassment prevention program. 

Sectors reporting sexual harassment

The MOL divides employers into 32 industry sectors, from construction and mining to industrial and public services, and sexual harassment complaints are being reported from mostly five or six sectors. 

Retail and restaurant sectors reported the most sexual harassment on the job, making up 26 per cent of the 156 sexual harassment complaints made to the MOL. Industrial manufacturing employers are responsible for most of the remainder, including automotive, food, beverage, tobacco, and industrial services.

Workers call anonymously, or after leaving workplace

The MOL also receives calls from workers who are no longer in the workplace, and who may have left due to harassment, and want to ensure other workers don’t have to go through the same thing. If workers are afraid to provide their names, the MOL also takes anonymous calls, and calls from the general public.

Although the MOL cannot compensate a victim, as a workplace inspection authority and representative of the provincial government, it can visit the workplace, request documentation, order the employer to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its associated regulations and, if warranted, charge an employer for non-compliance. These actions serve as a “wake-up call” for the employer to improve workplace health and safety.

The legislation helps address one of the biggest problems in the workplace – especially with smaller businesses where the owner is the alleged harasser. In the past, employees had nowhere to go to report sexual harassment from the boss, and that has all changed.

Where to go for help

An information sheet, “Being Harassed At Work? Information for Workers,” issued by the MOL in May 2017, provides a list of resources for help in dealing with workplace harassment. Since power imbalance is the major component of harassment, getting access to help is a key issue for workers.

Resources required depend on the situation and may include police, employee assistance programs, Ontario Human Rights Commission, Law Society Referral Service, Ontario Labour Relations Board, Office of the Worker Adviser, and the Assaulted Women’s Helpline. The MOL Health and Safety Contact Centre can provide callers with more information, and can be reached at 1-877-202-0008. 

For more information, contact your Ontario health and safety specialist.


Effective Sept. 8: New Ontario workplace safety law regarding sexual harassment

Violence and Harassment Prevention in the Workplace - Health and Safety Training

Health and Safety Guidelines: Workplace Violence and Harassment: Understanding the Law – Ministry of Labour (MOL) 

Code of Practice to Address: Workplace Harassment Under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act - MOL