October 30, 2013 - 10:00 AM
VANCOUVER - The agency dedicated to protecting the safety of about 2.2 million workers in British Columbia is not going to bully the province's employers into implementing new rules that deal with workplace harassment, says a senior executive.
Instead of taking a "heavy-handed approach" to enforcement, WorkSafeBC will consult with employers to ensure they follow changes to the Workers Compensation Act that take effect Friday, said Al Johnson, vice-president of prevention services.
The new occupational health and safety policies, which were approved by the agency's board in March, define workplace bullying and harassment and explain the duties of employers, supervisors and workers.
"Out of the gate here, we recognize that the level of understanding, if you will, or maybe sophistication around bullying and harassment, people need to get their heads around it and understand it and have some time to put their programs into place," said Johnson.
Johnson said dedicated officers will be available to work with employers. While those officers won't do things like write employers' workplace-policy statements, they will direct them towards relevant resources, he said.
WorkSafeBC expects many questions, so Johnson said people will be given time to digest the new rules. But if employers are unwilling to comply, officers may have to eventually write enforcement orders, he said.
The new policies date back to July 2012, when the provincial government changed the law and expanded coverage to include those suffering from mental disorders caused by workplace bullying and harassment, said Joe Pinto, senior program manager for WorkSafeBC.
He said the government directed WorkSafeBC to develop a policy applicable to all workplaces. The board passed that policy in March.
Robyn Durling, spokesman for the non-profit society BullyFreeBC, said the new policies are important because they provide short-term help for those suffering from mental disorders, like anxiety or depression, caused by workplace bullying and harassment.
He said the policies will also help educate the public that bullying is not acceptable, noting that as many as 30 to 40 per cent of workers in some Canadian and U.S. jurisdictions have reported being bullied in the workplace.
"Employers can not just kind of let it go and say, 'well it's just boys being boys. That's just kind of what happens in the workplace,'" he said.
Deborah Cushing, an associate at Lawson Lundell LLP, a firm that specializes in labour and employment law, said workers will also be able to make direct complaints to WorkSafeBC.
"These types of policies do allow the workers an avenue to turn to so if their employer doesn't deal with it appropriately then they could approach WorkSafeBC and say, 'I had this issue and I don't think it was dealt with appropriately,'" she said.
But Cushing a big question remains, and that's what will happen to those who break the rules.
Under the new policies, workplace bullying and harassment include inappropriate conduct or comments made by one person towards a worker. The person making the comments or behind the conduct must know or ought to know they will result in humiliation or intimidation.
Reasonable actions taken by employers and supervisors relating to the direction of workers are excluded.
For their part, employers must not engage in bullying or harassment and must take steps to prevent the problem and develop a workplace policy statement.
They must create procedures to receive and deal with complaints and review their policy statements annually. Employers must inform and train workers and supervisors about their own responsibilities.
Workers and supervisors must comply with their employer's policies and not bully or harass others. Workers have the added responsibility of reporting bullying and harassment in the workplace.
Pinto said since July 2012 WorkSafeBC has received about 700 claims where mistreatment or bullying was alleged, and of those cases it has accepted about 40 cases, said Pinto.
He said the agency has accepted another 50 complaints where workers, like bus drivers, were threatened with violence.
Put into context, he added, WorkSafeBC receives about 150,000 claims annually for physical injuries, not all of which are serious.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2013