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April 9, 2014 brought shocking news of an employee who allegedly reacted to the termination of his employment by pulling a knife during the dismissal meeting and stabbing four of his co-workers. At the time of this writing, three of those individuals remain in hospital—two of them in critical condition.
News reports indicate that the attack was stopped by other employees, who subdued the suspect until police arrived.
This incident is a tragic example of the type of workplace violence that motivated the Bill 168 amendments to the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act in June 2010.
In that regard, Bill 168 provided for the specific recognition of workplace violence and harassment as occupational health and safety issues, and imposed new duties on employers and supervisors with respect to:
- Workplace policies and programs: Employers are required to maintain (and periodically review and update) workplace violence and harassment policies and programs, and to provide employees with information and training concerning those policies and programs.
- Information about violent individuals: In prescribed circumstances, employers and supervisors are required to provide workers with certain information about any person with a history of violent behavior that such workers may be expected to encounter in the course of their work and who also may present a threat of physical harm.
- Risk assessments: Employers must regularly inspect and review their workplaces to assess workers’ potential exposure to violence, not only from other employees, but also from customers and other third parties. Particular attention must be paid to:
1) “higher risk” roles, that involve, for example: (i) handling cash or other valuables; (ii) working alone or in an isolated environment; (iii) working very late or overnight shifts; and (iv) interacting with the general public; and
2) “higher risk” activities that are likely to place personnel in conflict scenarios. In that regard, although termination meetings do not necessarily (and certainly do not usually) present serious safety risks, they are inherently unpredictable and potentially volatile events. Because of the possibility that a dismissed employee might react emotionally – and perhaps violently – to the news that s/he is losing his/ her job, it is prudent that in planning for such meetings employers turn their minds to the following safety considerations, among others:
a) Whenever possible, more than one company representative should attend the meeting;
b) The meeting should take place in an area where exit routes are available to the company representatives, and in which help can be quickly summoned; and
c) When appropriate (and particularly when, for example, an employer’s past experience with an employee suggests that s/he is likely to become volatile), building security should be on stand-by.
Based on the news reports of the April 9 incident, it appears that there were two company representatives in the termination meeting, and that the meeting was held in a location that permitted other employees to intercede and assist relatively quickly. If we assume that those circumstances were the product of planning on the employer’s part, it is possible that that planning saved lives—indeed, had the attacker not been subdued as quickly (or at all), the four injured workers might have been even more grievously wounded, and other employees might have been attacked as well.
- Reporting obligations: Employers have specific reporting obligations when a worker is disabled from performing his or her regular work or requires medical attention as a result of workplace violence. In that regard, when such violence results in a “critical injury”, it is mandatory for the employer to immediately notify the Ministry of Labour, and to provide a written report to the Ministry within two days thereafter.
Both the Toronto police and the Ontario Ministry of Labour will investigate the April 9 tragedy; and the Ministry will no doubt carefully scrutinize the employer’s compliance with its Bill 168 obligations, as well as with the general duty to “take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances” for the protection of its workers.
Non-compliance with those obligations (like any other instance of non-compliance with the OHSA) can attract significant penalties under the legislation; and it is important to note that the Ministry is at liberty to audit any employer’s compliance at any time.
Whatever the Ministry’s assessment of the employer’s compliance in this case, the incident stands as a sobering reminder of the duties prescribed under Bill 168; and it should encourage all employers to consider (and, as appropriate, update) their anti-violence strategies, particularly in relation to setting prudent protocols for termination meetings.