New Alberta workplace safety laws expand the definition of what it means to be safe at work

A few weeks ago, offices in my department were inspected for potential safety hazards.  Were things plugged in properly?  Was a bookshelf threatening to crash down upon an unsuspecting academic head? 

Protecting us from hazards of this kind – ensuring our physical safety at work – is in many ways a less daunting task than imagining how to remove threats to our mental and social welfare.  And yet, on 1 June 2018, this is precisely the onus that was placed on Mount Royal and all other Alberta employers.   

The revised Occupational Health and Safety Act [OHSA] significantly expands the definition of workplace safety in this province.  It aims, it says, to promote and maintain the “highest degree of physical, psychological and social well being of workers.”

The letter of this law, like all others, will be interpreted by the courts over time and what the legislation means in practical terms will correspondingly evolve on the basis of precedent setting decisions.  Nevertheless, prima fascia the legislation has potentially wide-ranging ramifications.

The OHSA now requires employers as far as is “reasonably practicable” to provide a work site where employees are aware of “existing and potential hazards” including “harassment [and] violence” alongside physical hazards.

Both violence and harassment are defined within the act.  Violence means the “threatened, attempted or actual conduct of a person that causes or is likely to cause physical or psychological injury or harm, and includes domestic or sexual violence.”

Harassment is “any single incident or repeated incidents of objectionable or unwelcome conduct, comment, bullying or action by a person that the person knows or ought reasonably to know will or would cause offence or humiliation to a worker, or adversely affects the worker’s health and safety.”

Incidents of harassment might be a sexual solicitation or advance but can also be any “conduct, comment, bullying or action because of race, religious beliefs, colour, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status, gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.”

What will a court determine are the “reasonably practicable” steps required of employers to protect employees from incidents of violence or harassment in the workplace?  

At minimum, it would seem, employers would need to track reported incidents of violence and harassment (defined in the broad terms of the OHSA) in order to determine common patterns or risk factors that could be remedied or prevented.

It is up to us, therefore, to report experiences of psychological violence or harassment at work. 

Our faculty association also has a role to play in ensuring our employer is fulfilling its obligations under the law.  If you have concerns about your safety at work – including your mental and social well being – these are concerns the MRFA should hear about.

By Kirk Niergarth

February 12, 2020