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When is a Release effective to bar a safety-related complaint? Appeal court weighs in

A release, signed by a terminated employee, barred her complaint against her employer under occupational health and safety legislation, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal has decided.

The employee was a nurse at a long-term care home.  The employer dismissed her during the probationary period on the basis that she was “not suitable”.  After getting legal advice, she signed a release in exchange for one month’s termination pay.

Less than a month after signing the release, she filed a complaint with the Occupational Health and Safety division of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Labour, alleging that prior to her termination, she had raised safety issues with management regarding bullying and unsafe staffing levels.

The court stated that OHS legislation is for the general benefit of employees, and that benefit should not be bargained away by a release or other agreement.  However, once a “triggering events” occurs which provides a worker with the right to make a complaint under OHS legislation, that right becomes “personal” to the worker.  Where a worker has given a release in respect of a personal right, the validity of the release must be reviewed.  Also, for the release to be effective to bar the personal OHS complaint, the timing of signing of the release (before or after the personal OHS issue arose) must be examined.

In this case, the release was valid, and the personal OHS issue occurred before the release was signed.  Therefore the employee was barred from advancing the OHS complaint.  Her OHS complaint was dismissed.

Wieler v Saskatoon Convalescent Home, 2017 SKCA 90 (CanLII)

 

When is a Release effective to bar a safety-related complaint? Appeal court weighs in

The introduction of Bill 30 brings the potential for significant changes to Alberta’s workplace laws

On November 27, 2017, the Government of Alberta introduced numerous proposed changes to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act and Workers’ Compensation Act. The proposed changes are contained in Bill 30: An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans.

A review of the key proposed changes in Bill 30 is found here. 

 

The introduction of Bill 30 brings the potential for significant changes to Alberta’s workplace laws

City inspector who engaged in two separate physical attacks at work was fired for cause: “that risk must be removed from the workplace”

A labour arbitrator has upheld the dismissal of a city inspector after he physically attacked two people – a coworker and a contractor to the city – in two separate incidents at work.

The employee was an inspector with the Municipal Construction unit at the city’s Water Division.

The arbitrator found that in one incident, the employee engaged in a physical altercation in which he intentionally struck a coworker, causing him injury (a 1-2 cm cut under his left eyebrow). The incident arose from a dispute about the use of city laundry facilities used to wash employees’ work clothes.  The arbitrator also found that the employee was dishonest in his characterization of what occurred, and did not accept responsibility.

In the other incident, the employee engaged in a verbal altercation with a city contractor (a backhoe operator) while inspecting a new residential service connection at a private property.  Instead of walking away, the employee escalated the dispute into a physical altercation, following the contractor and striking him twice in the back of the head.  The dispute was over whether the backhoe operator was using the appropriate material for backfill.

The arbitrator stated:

“There is simply no basis on which to relieve against the grievor’s termination.  His inability to control his anger has resulted in conduct which is completely unacceptable.   Even prior to Bill 168, an employee who, on two separate occasions physically attacked persons in the workplace, particularly when at least one of those attacks resulted in an injury, could expect to have their employment terminated, and that termination upheld.” 

Here, rather than taking responsibility for his actions, the employee attempted to blame the victims. He had failed to take an anger management course when requested, and also had received a Letter of Direction, directing him not to engage in workplace violence.

The arbitrator concluded:

“Accordingly, I accept the City’s assessment that the grievor has anger management issues, is likely to reoffend by engaging in violence, and that that risk must be removed from the workplace.”

There were no mitigating factors in the case. The employee’s dismissal was upheld.

Canadian Union Of Public Employees, Local 79 v Toronto (City), 2017 CanLII 53965 (ON LA)

City inspector who engaged in two separate physical attacks at work was fired for cause: “that risk must be removed from the workplace”

Town employees did not have a reasonable basis to fear violence from protester: “violence is not the mere absence of civility”, appeal court states

“The Town employees, both junior and senior, were alarmed, but they were alarmed too easily”, the Ontario Court of Appeal has stated, in deciding that a protester outside of a town council meeting did not engage in “violence”.  The decision shows that employees’ subjective fear of bullying or violence are not always legally justified.

The man was protesting the town council’s intention to permit a medical marijuana facility to be built across the street from his home. Several town staff members “expressed fear for their safety”. The town’s interim Chief Administrative Officer, whose duties included the obligation under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act to maintain a workplace free from harassment or violence, issued a trespass notice and the police arrested the protester and placed him in handcuffs when he refused to leave.  The trespass notice stated that the protester was not to enter three town properties for a year.  The protester brought a court application challenging the validity of the trespass notice.  He lost at the lower court, but won at the Court of Appeal.

The appeal court decided that the protester had not engaged in violence.  Although town employees were frightened and felt that the protester was “bullying them”, the evidence did not disclose any reasonable basis for their fear.  The court stated, “A protest does not cease to be peaceful simply because protesters are loud and angry”.  Here, there was no evidence that the protester physically obstructed anyone, or otherwise impaired anyone’s ability to use public space.  He paced back and forth with a megaphone.  Those were not “erratic” actions. The court stated, “Violence is not the mere absence of civility.”

The court noted the insufficient basis for the town employees’ fear of violence:

“The basis for [the town employees’] fear appears to be (1) one prior interaction in which Mr. Bracken was loud and “intimidating”, but in which he was never violent or threatening; (2) Mr. Bracken’s videotaping of a Council meeting; (3) Mr. Bracken’s videos posted to Youtube, in which he is said to chase people down and question them; (4) his actions on the day of his protest. If anyone felt intimidated by him, other than Town employees who had never before witnessed a protest and doubted that protests in front of Town Hall were lawful, it was not because he was threatening anyone.”

The court held that the town’s Workplace Violence Prevention Policy did not give the town authority to issue the trespass notice to the protester.  The court stated, “Although the OHSA imposes a duty on the Town to take reasonable precautions to protect workers, it does not confer any powers on the Town regarding the activities of someone who is not a co-worker . . .”  Further, the town staff could have talked to the protester and cautioned him about his activities, but they did not do so.  The trespass notice violated the protester’s right, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to freedom of expression.

According to the appeal court, “The statutory obligation to promote workplace safety, and the ‘safe space’ policies enacted pursuant to them, cannot be used to swallow whole Charter rights.”

In the end, the appeal court set aside the trespass notice and awarded the protester $4,000.00 for his costs of the appeal, and additional costs for the lower court proceeding.

Bracken v. Fort Erie (Town), 2017 ONCA 668 (CanLII)

Town employees did not have a reasonable basis to fear violence from protester: “violence is not the mere absence of civility”, appeal court states

Ontario employers are not, as a general rule, answerable under the OHSA to employees for workplace harassment by fellow employees or managers: arbitrator

An arbitrator has stated that the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act does not make employers “answerable to their employees for harassment to which they have been subjected by fellow employees or managers”.

The case involved a unionized Systems Analyst who claimed that she had been “harassed and bullied” by her former manager.  The employee alleged that the manager’s conduct included spreading rumours about the employee, denying her permission to attend professional conferences, unfairly evaluating her performance, looking to find fault in her work, and failing to include her in pertinent email correspondence.  The employee admitted that she had not brought all of the incidents to management’s attention.

The arbitrator stated that the main purpose of the harassment provisions in the collective agreement between the employer and  the union was to “express the parties’ shared commitment to eliminating workplace harassment, and to provide for the investigation of complaints by employees who claim to have suffered harassment or bullying at the workplace”.  The collective agreement did not, however, include a provision that made the employer liable for workplace harassment.

Turning to the OHSA’s workplace harassment provisions, the arbitrator stated:

“Of particular inter­est to this grievance is that the OHSA requires employers to develop policies on workplace harassment, the central plank of which is the investi­gation of harassment complaints. The OHSA provides for the possibility of fines for employers who fail to comply with their obligations under the legislation. It also provides for complaints to the Ontario Labour Relations Board or for the arbitration of grievances where it is alleged that an employer has penalized an employee as a reprisal for seeking to enforce his or her rights under the OHSA. Absent from the OHSA, however, is any suggestion that employers are answerable to their employ­ees for harassment to which they have been subjected by fellow employees or by managers. In short, the OHSA does nothing to bolster the union’s claim in the present case.” [underlining added]

This decision suggests that the harassment provisions in the Ontario OHSA do not actually impose a duty on employers to ensure that employees are free from workplace harassment (rather, the OHSA requires employers to develop and post a harassment policy, provide employees with “information and instruction” on that policy, and ensure that complaints of harassment are appropriately investigated).

George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology v Ontario Public Service Employees Union, 2017 CanLII 40984 (ON LA)

Ontario employers are not, as a general rule, answerable under the OHSA to employees for workplace harassment by fellow employees or managers: arbitrator

Student’s violent outbursts justified teacher’s work refusal: OLRB

A student’s history of violent outbursts justified a teacher’s work refusal, the Ontario Labour Relations Board has decided.

The teacher actually engaged in two work refusals: one when the student became violent (which was resolved by removing the student from the teacher’s class), and the second the next day when the teacher realized that the student was back in her class and that the removal had been only for the remainder of the previous day.

The student was in senior kindergarten. He had engaged in violent behavior at the school in the previous school year, including poking another student in the eye with a stick. In senior kindergarten, the student had more violent outbursts including throwing a stool at the teacher; punching another student; trying to bite and scratch the teacher; and kicking the teacher and scratching her face and eye, for which she was required to go to the hospital. The teacher said that it was impossible to predict when the student’s outbursts would occur.

On the day of the teacher’s first work refusal, the student began to push another student. Anticipating an incident, the teacher had the other students removed from the classroom. The student was left with the Educational Assistant, whom the student began to kick and hit. The student also threw toys at the door. The EA was able to calm the student down. While the student was in the classroom with the EA, the teacher went to the principal’s office and said that she (the teacher) was exercising her right to refuse unsafe work. The principal, after consulting with the teacher, removed the student from the class and spent the rest of the day in the principal’s office.

The next day, the teacher came to school and found the student back in her class. She again refused to work, saying she was concerned that the student would have another violent outburst. A Ministry of Labour inspector attended and determined that there was no reason for the teacher to refuse work under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The teacher’s union appealed that decision to the OLRB.

The OLRB decided that the teacher’s first work refusal was not justified under the OHSA because at the time, the student’s health and safety was in imminent jeopardy in that the student was a danger to himself if left alone.   Regulation 857 prohibited teachers from refusing to work where the circumstances were such that the life, health or safety of a student was in imminent jeopardy. However, the second work refusal was justified as the teacher had a genuine and honest concern about her safety as a result of the student’s violent behavior. Given the student’s history, that concern was reasonable. The school had put the teacher in a difficult position: not only was the student returned to class, but no one in administration spoke with the teacher in advance. No new measures had been considered in order to deal with the student’s outbursts.

Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers / Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association v. Toronto Catholic District School Board, 2017 CanLII 37597 (ON LRB)

 

Student’s violent outbursts justified teacher’s work refusal: OLRB

WSIB benefits to be available in Ontario for “chronic or traumatic mental stress” starting in 2018

Ontario has amended the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act to make WSIB benefits available for “chronic or traumatic mental stress” arising from the workplace, starting January 1, 2018. There will be no retroactive application.

The amendments provide, however, that:

“A worker is not entitled to benefits for mental stress caused by decisions or actions of the worker’s employer relating to the worker’s employment, including a decision to change the work to be performed or the working conditions, to discipline the worker or to terminate the employment.”

As with any type of workplace injury, in order to obtain WSIB benefits for mental stress, the worker must show that the mental stress “arises out of and in the course of” the worker’s employment.  To obtain WSIB benefits for mental stress, the worker must also prove that the mental stress was “chronic” or “traumatic”.

The WSIB has released a draft policy on chronic mental stress and invites comments before July 7, 2017.

Of course, workers employed by employers that are not registered with the WSIB (and not required to be registered) will not be entitled to WSIB benefits for workplace mental stress.

One expects that this change will result in a significant number of claims to the WSIB, since “job stress” is a commonly-raised issue.  Some of those claims might otherwise have manifested themselves as workplace harassment complaints (under the employer’s workplace harassment policy), a harassment application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, a union grievance, or a claim to the employer’s group benefits insurer under a group long-term disability insurance plan.

A Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal decision in 2014 had determined that the current workplace mental stress provisions of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in that they discriminated against workers with mental disabilities.  The amendments appear to be, at least in part, a response to that decision.

The section of the Bill that relates to amendments to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act may be read here.

 

 

WSIB benefits to be available in Ontario for “chronic or traumatic mental stress” starting in 2018

Court orders condo owner who harassed building management staff to cease and desist. OHSA harassment provisions applied

A condominium owner who called building management staff offensive and degrading names has been ordered by a judge to cease and desist from harassing them. The decision shows that the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act’s harassment provisions can require an employer to take steps to end harassment by third-parties.

The condo owner frequently and persistently emailed staff.  She also called them degrading names such as “obscenely obese”, “massive hulk” and “tubbo”. She suggested that she was deeply concerned about the management of the building.

The condominium corporation sought a cease-and-desist order from the court. The judge noted that the owner’s “verbal barrage has made work life intolerable” for the staff. The judge described her communications as “antisocial, degrading and harassing”.  Her conduct was workplace harassment under the OHSA. It was clearly unwelcome, and the employer had a legal duty under the OHSA to investigate it.

The judge ordered the condo owner to “cease and desist from uncivil or illegal conduct that violates the Condominium Act or the Rules” of the condo corporation. The judge also ordered her to pay the condo corporation $15,000 for its legal costs in the court proceeding.

York Condominium Corp No 163 v Robinson, 2017 ONSC 2419 (CanLII)

Court orders condo owner who harassed building management staff to cease and desist. OHSA harassment provisions applied

Bullied to death? PEI WCB awards benefits to widow after finding a link between workplace bullying and fatal heart attack

The Workers Compensation Board of Prince Edward Island recently awarded WCB benefits to the widow of a worker who died of a heart attack in November 2013. The worker had suffered a workplace back injury a few months earlier and had recently returned to work. According to the widow’s submissions to the WCB, the worker was bullied at work by his supervisor and did not feel he was receiving the proper support from his employer.

The worker’s family had initially approached the WCB about the availability of benefits, but were advised that because the death was not caused by a workplace injury, benefits were not available to them. The worker’s estate, widow and children subsequently commenced a court action against the employer and supervisor claiming damages. The claim alleged that the worker died from heart failure as a result of workplace bullying, and that the work conditions led to stress, anxiety and physical symptoms which ultimately caused his fatal heart attack.

The Supreme Court of PEI initially dismissed the action on the basis that it did not have jurisdiction as there was a collective agreement in place that governed, and so there were other remedies available to the plaintiffs including grievance arbitration and a WCB claim. On appeal, the PEI Court of Appeal reversed the decision, finding that the PEI Fatal Accidents Act did give the Court jurisdiction over the claim brought by the dependents. The Court of Appeal also considered whether a stay was appropriate on the basis that the claim was within the jurisdiction of the Workers Compensation Act. However, the Court was unable to decide that issue on the limited record, reminding the parties that the WCB can adjudicate and determine whether a right of action is removed by the Workers Compensation Act.

The plaintiffs returned to the WCB seeking a determination. The WCB confirmed that a workplace accident could include bullying and harassment. After receiving submissions from the parties, the WCB determined that the worker’s death was linked to workplace bullying and harassment, thus entitling the widow to benefits. The employer has filed an appeal with the WCB so this is likely not the last word.

While WCB policies may vary across the country, the basic premise behind WCB benefits is the same – the historic trade off whereby employers fund a no-fault insurance scheme to compensate injured workers for workplace injuries and in return, workers give up the right to sue the employer. In order for a claim to be compensable, there must have been a workplace accident.

In Alberta, the WCB’s cardiac policy states that in order for cardiac claims to be compensable:

  • there must be evidence of occupational exposure to factors or events known or presumed to be associated with heart problems; and
  • the time period between the occupational exposure and the onset of the cardiac condition is such that a relationship can be established.

The policy also list some examples of occupational exposures which can cause cardiac conditions, including psychological causes, involving exposure to significant and acute psychological stress.

Therefore, while the PEI decision appears to be a unique case, with the proper facts and medical evidence, and the relatively recent focus on issues of workplace bullying, we can expect to see more claims for benefits relating to workplace bullying and harassment. In the meantime, employers should ensure that they have (and follow!) appropriate policies and procedures in place to address workplace bullying and harassment.

The Court of Appeal decision can be found here.

 

Bullied to death? PEI WCB awards benefits to widow after finding a link between workplace bullying and fatal heart attack

“Your ugly face”: employer’s condescending, aggressive, hostile and profane behaviour in one meeting resulted in constructive dismissal. Nurse awarded 24 months in damages

The Ontario Court of Appeal has upheld a 24-month damage award to a long-service nurse in a doctor’s office who believed that she had been fired during a hostile meeting with her employer.

The doctor for whom she worked wanted her to look into electronic medical records (EMR).  She was overwhelmed with a heavy workload and did not get to it.  The doctor angrily confronted her in a meeting, at which the doctor’s wife was also present.  The court found that the doctor, in his anger, said, “Go! Get out! I am so sick of coming into this office every day and looking at your ugly face.”  He also pointed at her, shouted at her, accused her of being resistant to change, and used profanity during that meeting.  The employee, distraught, left the meeting and never returned to work. The employer treated her as having quit. The employee sued for wrongful dismissal.

The trial judge decided that although the doctor did not intend to dismiss the nurse, he did in fact fire her when he told her to “Go! Get out!”

Even if the doctor had not fired the employee, he had constructively dismissed her, the trial judge stated.  Although the meeting was only one incident, it was sufficient to constitute a constructive dismissal.  The trial judge wrote:

“An employer owes a duty to its employees to treat them fairly, with civility, decency, respect and dignity.  An employer who subjects employees to treatment that renders competent performance of their work impossible, or continued employment intolerable, exposes itself to an action for constructive dismissal.  Where the employer’s treatment of the employee is of sufficient severity and effect, it will be characterized as an unjustified repudiation of the employment contract.”

The trial judge found that the doctor’s behaviour was condescending, aggressive, hostile and profane.  His conduct diminished the nurse’s stature and dignity in the office.  When the doctor saw the emotional impact that his comments had on her at the meeting, he did nothing.  He had made her continued employment intolerable, and effectively destroyed the employment relationship.

The trial judge awarded this 22-year employee 24 months’ salary in damages for wrongful dismissal.  The appeal court upheld this award.

The trial judge’s decision can be read here, and the appeal court’s decision here.

 

“Your ugly face”: employer’s condescending, aggressive, hostile and profane behaviour in one meeting resulted in constructive dismissal. Nurse awarded 24 months in damages

Threats of violence, one day after “sensitivity training”, get worker fired for cause. He “may have a problem with women in the workplace, especially women managers”, says arbitrator

A worker who said, “If anything ever happened, like losing my job, I’d have no problem coming in here and shooting them”, a day after receiving sensitivity training relating to workplace violence, was dismissed for cause, an arbitrator has decided. The worker, a fare collector, had taken the training after giving the finger to an “obstreperous customer”.

He made the “shooting them” threat while speaking with a coworker about the materials from the training session, to which he remarked, ” Can you believe this?”  After the coworker tried to make light of the situation, the worker said that he would kill only managers, not union employees.

The coworker reported the threat to management, who then fired the worker, who filed a union grievance.

The arbitrator found that the worker had made the threat, despite the worker’s denial.
The coworker had no motive to make false allegations. The two employees had had a friendly relationship.

Despite the worker’s 25 years of service, the arbitrator decided that the employer had just cause for dismissal. The worker never admitted the threats nor apologized. He had a disciplinary history including discipline for an incident in which he was unable to control his anger. Significantly, he made the threats one day after taking sensitivity training designed to help him control his anger and understand the seriousness of workplace violence. He also had an unfounded view that female employees were conspiring to get him, showing that he “may have a problem with women in the workplace”.  All of these factors “did not bode well for the future” were he to be reinstated.

Toronto Transit Commission v Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 113, 2017 CanLII 11071 (ON LA)

Threats of violence, one day after “sensitivity training”, get worker fired for cause. He “may have a problem with women in the workplace, especially women managers”, says arbitrator

“Repeated exposure to supervisor constituted a dangerous situation”, employee arguing

The Federal Court has breathed new life into a government employee’s claim that “repeated exposure to her supervisor constituted a dangerous situation” that justified her work refusal under the Canada Labour Code.  The case is a good example of how workplace harassment / violence complaints that appear trivial on their face can turn out to cause the employer significant headaches.

The employee was unhappy with the employer’s investigation.  The matter was then referred to a federal Labour Affairs Officer who concluded that the existing situation constituted a danger for the employee.  He recommended that the Labour Program’s Regional Director order the employer to take immediate action to correct the situation.

However, the Regional Director “refused to investigate” the work refusal, reasoning that the employee’s concerns would be more appropriately dealt with under the Public Service Labour Relations Act because of the grievances that the employee had already filed under that Act.  The Regional Director told the employee that she was no longer entitled to refuse to be in the direct or indirect presence of her supervisor.

The court decided that the Regional Director’s decision was unreasonable.  Given that the Labour Affairs Officer had already investigated the work refusal, the Regional Director had only three options under sections 129(4) and 128(13) of the Canada Labour Code: “1) agree that a danger exists; 2) agree that a danger exists but consider that the refusal puts the life, health or safety of another person directly in danger or that the danger is a normal condition of employment; and 3) determine that a danger does not exist.”  The court also stated that even if the Labour Affairs Officer had not already investigated the work refusal, the Regional Director’s decision “was not justified, transparent or intelligible as it lacked any explanation as to why” the grievance under the Public Service Labour Relations Act was a more appropriate process to deal with the employee’s allegations of danger.  It was also unclear as to why the Regional Director diverged from the Labour Affairs Officer’s decision.

As such, the court concluded that “the Regional Director’s decision lacks justification, transparency and intelligibility and as such, it is unreasonable and does not fall within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law”.

The court set aside the decision of the Regional Director and sent the matter back to the Minister of Labour or her delegate for reconsideration.  The court awarded the employee $4,500.00 in legal costs.

Karn v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 FC 123 (CanLII)

“Repeated exposure to supervisor constituted a dangerous situation”, employee arguing

Industrial safety specialist properly fired for lying on security application

An Ontario judge has decided that Atomic Energy of Canada Limited had just cause to dismiss an industrial safety specialist who misrepresented his employment history in a security application.

AECL operates nuclear research facilities.  It runs security checks that are mandated by the Government of Canada, including obtaining site security clearances for new employees.

AECL received harassment complaints against the employee.  During the investigation, it came out that the employee had been employed at the time AECL hired him. However, during the hiring process, he had indicated on a security questionnaire, and in an e-mail when specifically asked, that he was unemployed.  This was false. AECL fired him.

The employee sued for wrongful dismissal.  In the course of the lawsuit, he offered five different explanations for why he lied to AECL about his employment status.

The court decided that AECL had just cause to dismiss the employee.  AECL was not a “regular employer”, and the pre-employment security checks were “tied to the security of the nation”.  The court stated, “It is in this national security context that the plaintiff misled his employer”.  He had “engaged in a most serious form of dishonesty and, standing on its own, it was irreconcilable with sustaining his employment relationship with AECL.  It is dishonesty that went to the core of the employment relationship and he was terminated with cause.”

Aboagye v Atomic Energy, 2016 ONSC 8165 (CanLII)

 

Industrial safety specialist properly fired for lying on security application

Court refuses small-town mayor’s OHSA-based request for injunction prohibiting resident from harassing her

An Ontario judge has rebuffed a small-town mayor’s attempt to use the Occupational Health and Safety Act‘s violence and harassment provisions to obtain a court order stopping a town resident from harassing her.

The mayor claimed that the resident had engaged in workplace harassment and violence, contrary to the OHSA, by sending her numerous “increasingly abrasive” letters and emails in which he made pejorative statements about the mayor and made comments about the “unprofessional conduct” of the town. The resident was apparently “interested in horticulture and town beautification” and had concerns about the management of the town’s affairs.

The court decided that the evidence did not support a finding that workplace violence had occurred.  There was just one allegation that the resident had verbally harassed the mayor during an encounter at the town health unit, where the mayor held a full-time job, in 2014.  Also, the judge stated that it was doubtful that the harassment policy or the OHSA’s harassment provisions were ever intended to apply to persons who are not part of the “workplace”.  The judge decided that in this case, the resident was not a coworker, so the harassment policy did not apply to his actions.

The mayor and the town were therefore not entitled to an “injunction” order from the court prohibiting the resident from communicating with, harassing or publishing any information about the mayor or any other town councillor or employee.

Rainy River v Olsen, 2016 ONSC 8009 (CanLII)

Court refuses small-town mayor’s OHSA-based request for injunction prohibiting resident from harassing her

Psychological harassment arbitration adjourned because employee awarded worker’s compensation benefits

An employee who received worker’s compensation benefits for “psychological injury due to harassment” has had her union harassment grievance, against her employer and supervisor, adjourned.

The employee claimed that her supervisor had harassed her at work by “singling her out, questioning her abilities, criticizing her use of sick leave, threatening her job, refusing to provide her equivalent training provided to others, making serious allegations with respect to her work performance, and accusing her of killing patients, in circumstances in which the employer knew or reasonably ought to have known these events were occurring.”

In her union grievance, she asked the labour arbitrator to remove her supervisor from the workplace, and claimed damages totaling $100,000 from him and her employer.

The arbitrator noted that the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Act provides that “No employer and no worker or worker’s dependant has a right of action against an employer or a worker with respect to an injury to a worker arising out of and in the course of the worker’s employment”.  The Act also provided that the Workers’ Compensation Board had exclusive authority to decide whether, in any particular case, an employee did not have the right to sue the employer in respect of the injury.

The arbitrator, relying on a previous court decision in another case, decided that the WCB, and not the arbitrator, had authority to decide whether the employee could advance the union grievance claiming damages for the psychological injury allegedly caused by harassment. The employer had already applied to the WCB for a decision on that issue. The  arbitrator urged the parties to seek a “timely decision” from the WCB.  The arbitrator adjourned the grievance arbitration until the WCB had decided whether the employee had the right to claim damages at arbitration for her workplace psychological injury.

Saskatoon Regional Health Authority v SEIU West (Erosa-lopez), 2016 CanLII 95946 (SK LA)

Psychological harassment arbitration adjourned because employee awarded worker’s compensation benefits

Work refusal due to second-hand smoke was not properly investigated: arbitrator

A correctional officer with sinusitis and sensitivity to second-hand smoke was entitled to have her work refusal investigated by prison management, an arbitrator has decided.

Although the prison was a non-smoking facility, prisoners would smuggle in contraband cigarettes. There was an “informal arrangement” in place under which the correctional officer could be moved to a different area of the prison if she detected second-hand smoke.

At the time of her work refusal, there was labour unrest at the prison including “mass work refusals”. She refused to work because she “believed that she would be exposed to second-hand smoke”.  She was directed to wait in the lunchroom, where she waited several hours and heard nothing from management.  She, however, made no concerted effort to contact management about the status of her work refusal.

The arbitrator stated:

” . . . I fail to see why the Employer could not have initiated and completed an investigation of CO Gough’s work refusal during the course of her 12-hour shift on September 7, 2014.  It is not clear to me for example why a stage 1 investigation could not have been conducted by the Employer later in the afternoon, rather than the information gathering meeting that was held by DS Large.  CO Gough’s single work refusal was not that complicated and I would have thought that an investigation of it would have been relatively brief and could have been completed before the end of her shift.  In considering all of the circumstances of that day, I find that the Employer’s failure to conduct an investigation of CO Gough’s work refusal on September 7, 2014, was not reasonable and that this failure amounts to a contravention of section 43 (3) of OHSA.”

The arbitrator, however, rejected the union’s argument that the way the employer handled the work refusal constituted harassment.  There was no evidence of bad faith on the part of the employer.

Lastly, the arbitrator decided that the proper remedy was simply “declaratory relief”: a declaration from the arbitrator that management failed to investigate the work refusal and thereby violated the Occupational Health and Safety Act.  However, the correctional officer did not experience any harm that would justify an award of monetary damages.

Ontario Public Service Employees Union (Gough) v. The Crown in Right of Ontario (Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services)

 

Work refusal due to second-hand smoke was not properly investigated: arbitrator

Christmas party incident of sexual harassment leads to dismissal, then reinstatement, of firefighter

A male firefighter who had been “drinking heavily” has won reinstatement to his job after being fired for sexually harassing a female coworker at the fire department’s Christmas party.

The Christmas party was held at a restaurant. The male firefighter, a Captain at a fire station, told the female colleague that he thought she would get pregnant if she transferred to his fire station.

The female colleague later alleged that he had said that she would get raped and become pregnant if she transferred to his fire station.  The arbitrator did not accept this allegation and concluded that the female firefighter had misheard or misunderstood the male firefighters.  The union, however, admitted that if the arbitrator found that the male firefighter had threatened the female firefighter with rape, the City would have just cause to fire him.

The arbitrator stated:

“I accept the Grievor’s evidence that he does not recall using the word [“rape”] and it would not be something that he would say. I acknowledge that the Grievor had a number of drinks that night and was being offensive. But the Grievor’s comments were more directed towards Firefighter A [the female firefighter] being involved socially or sexually with other firefighters, and not directed at Firefighter A being assaulted.

“While it is true that the Grievor clearly mentioned Firefighter A getting pregnant, he was also talking about rumour and gossip surrounding her relationship with other firefighters.”

According to the arbitrator, even if the male firefighter had used the word “rape”, there was clearly no intention of uttering a threat, and the female firefighter testified that she did not believe that the male firefighter was threatening to rape her.  The arbitrator stated, “I believe it is more probable than not that the Grievor only made some offensive comments about Firefighter A’s involvement with Firefighter Hefferman.”

In the end, the arbitrator reinstated the male firefighter with a three-month unpaid suspension, and demoted him to the rank of first class firefighter for a period of time to be agreed by the parties. The arbitrator also ordered that the male firefighter participate in “sensitivity and anti-harassment training”.

Corporation of the City of Brampton v Brampton Professional Firefighter’s Association, Local 1068, 2016 CanLII 87624 (ON LA)

 

Christmas party incident of sexual harassment leads to dismissal, then reinstatement, of firefighter

Arbitrator finds employer violated OHSA workplace-violence obligations

A labour arbitrator has found that a mental health organization violated the Occupational Health and Safety Act when it failed to take certain workplace-violence precautions.

The organization provided services to persons with mental health issues, including securing housing.

A Case Manager with the organization became aware that a client had sent another client a text suggesting that he wanted to sexually assault the employee.  The organization decided to bar the client from contact with the employee and from attending drop-in sessions. Nevertheless the client attended drop-in sessions on at least two subsequent occasions.

The arbitrator found that the organization did not have any means of preventing a client from texting another client an offensive text that threatened an employee.  However, the organization, having barred the client, failed to ensure that the client “heeded the injunction” and stayed away. That was a violation of the OHSA.  There was no evidence that the employee encountered the client at any of the drop-ins after he was barred, so there was no basis for an award of damages.

In a second incident, the employee reported that she felt threatened by a client.  The employee’s notes included references to the client “‘leaning over writer’, ‘shouting about aliens’, invading her personal space ‘as he kept tapping her on the knee’, becoming ‘extremely agitated’, leaning over the Grievor, speaking about eating humans and making ‘a sudden strangling gesture towards [the Grievor]’, referring to having been on probation in connection with charges of sexual assault of a woman, ‘leaning over [the Grievor] in an aggressive manner and she had to push him back away from her’, being told by the Grievor that his behaviour was threatening and that he does not respect her personal space, ‘advancing towards [the Grievor] on a couple of occasions screaming about aliens, homosexuals and radiation, invading the Grievor’s personal space, and, finally, charging the Grievor, pushing her forcefully in the chest, and causing her to lose her balance.’

The organization directed the employee to stay out of that client’s residence based on her perception of a threat, but she ignored that direction.  The arbitrator decided that the organization had violated the OHSA by failing to ensure that the employee complied with the employer’s direction. Again, no damages were warranted, but the arbitrator granted a “declaration” that the employer had breached the OHSA.

Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Local 548 v Cota Health, 2016 CanLII 81970 (ON LA)

Arbitrator finds employer violated OHSA workplace-violence obligations

New Alberta Bill 208 seeks to provide protection against workplace bullying

On November 9, 2016, Calgary MLA Craig Coolahan introduced Bill 208, Occupational Health and Safety (Protection From Workplace Harassment) Amendment Act, 2016. This Bill seeks to address workplace bullying by introducing provisions dealing with harassment into Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Currently, Alberta’s occupational health and safety legislation contains requirements relating to workplace violence. However, since “violence” is defined in the legislation as conduct that caused or is likely to cause physical injury, the existing requirements do not apply to many cases of workplace harassment.

The proposed amendments include a definition of “harassment” that would require the conduct to constitute a threat to the health or safety of the worker. The amendments would add a specific obligation on employers to ensure, as far as it is reasonably practicable, that its workers are not exposed to harassment in their employment. It would also add an obligation on workers to refrain from causing or participating in the harassment of another worker. Employers would be required to establish and administer a workplace harassment policy and investigate complaints of workplace harassment. Workers who are not satisfied with the outcome of the employer’s investigation process would have the option to file a complaint with an officer.

Bill 208 can be found here.

New Alberta Bill 208 seeks to provide protection against workplace bullying

Federal employee has effective veto over appointment of “impartial” workplace violence investigator, as long as veto not exercised in “abusive” manner: Tribunal

A federal employee’s objection to the appointment of a workplace violence investigator was valid, the Occupational Health and Safety Tribunal Canada has decided, because the investigator was not “seen by” the employee as impartial.  Although this decision legally affects only federally-regulated employers (those subject to the Canada Labour Code), it is likely of interest to provincially-regulated Canadian employers too.

The employee, Mr. Chartrand, claimed that he had been abused and harassed in the workplace.  Another employee claimed that Chartrand had himself engaged in workplace violence and harassment.

The investigator in Chartrand’s complaint decided that the complaint was “inadmissible” and that it was impossible for him to confirm whether the alleged actions had taken place.  Chartrand asserted that the investigator was impartial because he did not meet with the witnesses that Chartrand had referred to him.  A different investigator in the second complaint concluded that the complaint against Chartrand was justified.

The Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations require, in section 20.9, that if the parties are unable to resolve a workplace violence complaint, the employer must appoint a “competent person” to investigate who is “impartial and is seen by the parties to be impartial“.

The Tribunal stated:

[55]           The legislator clearly preferred a consensual approach to the issue of impartiality. By including the words and is seen by the parties to be impartial after the word impartial, the legislator clearly requires the parties to agree on whether the person proposed by the employer is impartial . . . If an agreement is not reached, the proposed person simply cannot be appointed.

[56]           From this it can be inferred that the legislator considered it vital that the parties agree on the impartiality of the person designated to conduct the investigation whose objectives are described in subsection 20.9(3) and et seq. of the Regulations. There is no doubt that the objective sought by the legislator is to ensure the credibility of the recommendations that this person must provide at the end of the investigation and to promote their acceptance by all of the parties involved.

The Tribunal decided that it is up to the employer to appoint a “competent person” to investigate but that person’s impartiality must be genuine and seen as such by the parties.  The employee’s refusal to agree that an investigator was impartial need not be “substantiated and justified” but it must not be abusive.

The Tribunal noted that an “abusive or discriminatory” approach by an employee in the selection of an “impartial” investigator could lead to discipline against the employee or be interpreted as a waiver of the employee’s rights to have a competent person appointed under the Canada Labour Code to conduct an investigation into workplace harassment or violence.

The Tribunal decided that Chartrand had not abused his rights in this case.  The Tribunal noted that Chartrand was at the centre of a number of disputes with his employer, and this could explain his distrust of the employer’s representatives and his belief that the investigation would be harmful to him from the outset.

Maritime Employers Association v. Longshoremen’s Union, CUPE, Local 375, 2016 OHSTC 14 (CanLII)

Federal employee has effective veto over appointment of “impartial” workplace violence investigator, as long as veto not exercised in “abusive” manner: Tribunal