Addressing Sexual Violence and Harassment in Workplaces

On March 6, 2015, the Ontario government published its action plan aimed at addressing sexual violence and harassment in the province. “It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment” recommends changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) to deal with workplace sexual harassment prevention and training.

Proposed legislative amendments to the OHSA include:

  • Defining sexual harassment
  • Requiring employers to establish a code of practice that outlines the steps to develop a stronger sexual harassment policy
  • Developing a code of practice that will provide steps to help employers comply with the law
  • Introducing an obligation for employers to make every reasonable effort to protect workers from harassment, including sexual harassment, in the workplace
  • Setting out explicit requirements for employers to investigate and address workplace harassment, including sexual harassment complaints in the workplace
  • Establishing a special enforcement team of inspectors trained to address complaints of workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, and enforce the Act
  • Developing educational materials for employers

Protecting victims

In addition, the government plans to table legislation that, if passed, would strengthen provisions related to sexual violence and harassment in the workplace, on campus and in housing, and would eliminate the two-year limitation period for civil sexual assault claims and claims of sexual assault before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

It would also require colleges and universities to work with students to adopt campus-wide sexual violence and harassment policies that include training, prevention, complaint procedures and response protocols.

Training for key workers

Furthermore, the government would develop up-to-date training for front-line workers in the health, community services, education and justice sectors to better support survivors of sexual assault and harassment and develop training for workers in the hospitality sector to help them know how to help when they encounter high-risk situations. Training would also include other sectors such as the police force, crown attorneys, support workers who work with the vulnerable sector, and teachers.

Conclusion

This plan is another demonstration of the Ontario government’s desire to address social issues through workplace regulation.

The proposal would change sexual harassment from strictly a human rights issue to an occupational health and safety issue as well. This would make it especially important for employers to maintain respectful, harassment-free workplaces, as they might face liability for OHS violations and discrimination. As with Bill 168 and its workplace violence and harassment protections, this plan would place substantial new obligations on employers with respect to policies, procedures, training and communication, introduce new enforcement and penalties, and provide new avenues for employees to challenge workplace conduct.

In light of the government’s new action plan and upcoming legislative amendments, employers should proactively review their current workplace health and safety violence and harassment policies and procedures (including complaint, response and investigation processes), as well as training requirements and processes, to ensure a safe workplace free of sexual harassment for all their employees.

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