Employee Behaviour Affects Workplace Safety

January 2011

Amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Bill 168), which came into effect in June 2010, were designed to eliminate or minimize the risk of violence and harassment in the workplace. To ensure compliance, HR professionals must be vigilant in observing the behaviour of employees, understand what is appropriate and how to manage situations where inappropriate behaviour exists. The expertise of HR professionals lies in the ability to distinguish between performance-related behaviour problems and other problems. If we can confirm through effective performance-management processes that the inappropriate behaviour is not related to performance, then underlying factors must be considered and dealt with.

HR professionals must also take into account the impact of the employee's behaviour on others. If it creates fear, concern or uncertainty among co-workers, HR has legal and ethical obligations to delve further immediately because employee safety is at risk. This was a lesson learned too late from the tragic case of the Windsor nurse who was murdered by a physician at her place of employment. Before her death, she had brought her concerns to hospital management and had applied for a restraining order against this physician, with whom she had a previous relationship.

Onus on management
The amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which were created in response to similar cases, stipulate it is management's responsibility to identify hazards, ensure controls are in place, provide training to all employees exposed and remove any potential physical threats to employees.

Employers are now required by law to have a policy that will eliminate or minimize the risk of violence to employees. This also includes a requirement that if an employer becomes aware of domestic violence that would likely expose an employee(s) to a physical injury in the workplace, the employer must take every precaution reasonable to protect the employee.

However, this does not mean that HR professionals are expected to be social workers or psychologists. After all, we are not qualified to diagnose mental-health problems. But our policy and risk assessment plan must include ways to identify signs that an employee might be a victim of domestic abuse or that an employee might be an abuser, and techniques to manage potentially violent and actually violent situations. Such expertise should now be considered part of the foundation of good human resources management and performance management, both of which we must execute while also ensuring employees know what appropriate conduct is. You need to know how to discern what the problem really is and when and how to react. We must also be aware that those skills are not instinctive and must be taught to many managers.

Building a trusting relationship with our employees is also essential, because if we do that, they are more apt to take guidance from us and approach us if they have a problem. HR professionals are busy people but we still have to be alert, vigilant and intuitive. Heightened awareness is crucial in today's workplace for the sake of all our employees.

Most important, we need to make sure employees understand and abide by policies that identify appropriate behaviour.