Bullying: An Occupational Health and Safety Hazard

When one thinks of a hazard at a workplace what may come to mind are falls from heights or getting caught in a pinch point of industrial machinery. In general we think of something that is traumatic and may cause a physical injury such as a broken arm or leg, concussion or even death.

But what about bullying? Is bullying a hazard in the workplace?

The Workplace Bullying Institute (“WBI”) describes bullying, in part, as a perpetrator’s need to control the targeted individual(s) and requires consequences for the targeted individual(s). These consequences are not positive for the individual, and the intent is to do harm. Harm to an individual may result in a physical or emotional injury or illness. If this occurs in the workplace, it then becomes a health and safety hazard which an employer must take steps to control.

A WBI 2017 survey reported that 30% of perpetrators were females; female bullies targeted other females 67% of the time; 33% of their targets were male. The same report showed that males accounted for 70% of the perpetrators; 65% of their targets were females and 35% were males (2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey: Gender & Race, Workplace Bullying Institute). The Alberta Alis cited that the Canadian Safety Council of Canada reports that in the workplace one person in 6 has been bullied and 1 person in 5 has witnessed a co-worker being bullied.

An employer may learn of bullying through a complaint of workplace harassment. Canadian occupational health and safety statutes mandate that if workplace harassment is reported to the employer or if the employer ought reasonably to know about harassment in the workplace, the employer must conduct an investigation. In Ontario, employers must advise the worker and alleged harasser (if they are an employee) of the results of the investigation and any corrective actions. However, not all cases of bullying are reported. The toxic environment created by bullies may permeate the workplace causing physical, emotional and potential financial harm for the victim. A toxic work environment permeated by workplace bullying may also indirectly affect the quality of products, safety of other workers and potential for economic growth and profits for an organization.

Preventing workplace bullying is challenging on many levels. Often times, a bully may be in a position of power over the worker; the individual has authority and control of the work and potentially the workplace. In other instances, a bully may recruit others to support them in targeting a victim or group of victims. This is known as workplace mobbing. In some workplaces, bullying may become an acceptable and condoned workplace practice. Victims of bullying often quit their jobs to avoid the pressure and anxiety of being bullied at work.

The foundational concept of occupational health and safety legislation is based on the internal responsibility system. All workplace parties must work together to create a safe and healthy workplace. This involves taking steps to identify and control workplace hazards, including workplace bullying. The goal of taking preventive steps to address workplace bullying is to effectively change a toxic work environment into a safe and productive workplace. The goal of any employer should be to eliminate bullying from the workplace. Controls that an employer may consider implementing to eliminate bullying in the workplace include the establishment of written policies to ensure employees understand that bullying is a form of workplace harassment that is to be reported and will not be condoned; formal investigation protocols to address incidents and initiate corrective action; enforcement action when appropriate, no matter who may be the bully, i.e. an executive officer, manager, supervisor or worker and an employer commitment to a zero tolerance approach to bullying in the workplace.

Workplaces thrive when there is a positive culture of health and safety. When we change our perception of bullying, that it is a workplace hazard, we can put the proper controls in place to protect workers.

Need help? Our team of HR professionals are available to help you develop and implement an anti-bullying policy, and provide training to your employees on how they can help identify and prevent bullying.

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