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Workplace Investigations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act

By , December 11, 2018 10:17 am

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) imposes several obligations on employers to investigate complaints of workplace harassment.  

When there is an incident or complaint of workplace harassment, OHSA requires the employer to conduct an investigation that is appropriate in the circumstances. An employer has a legal obligation to make the workplace safe so if there is any indication of behaviour that would make the workplace unsafe, the employer must address it. The investigation must be conducted by someone who has received information and instructions on how to conduct an investigation.

The OHSA requires that complaints of workplace violence or harassment, whether formal or informal, must be investigated. To reduce legal exposure and save costs, employers should ensure that at least one employee receives workplace investigation training.

When should an employer conduct an investigation?

Workplace harassment occurs when a person engages in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace which is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome. The definition of workplace harassment also includes sexual harassment.

Examples of workplace harassment include spreading malicious rumours or gossip, excluding or isolating someone socially, physically abusing or threatening abuse, making offensive comments or jokes, yelling or using profanity, constantly criticising a person, belittling a person’s opinions or displaying or circulating offensive pictures or materials.

Two of the most common examples of workplace harassment are bullying and sexual harassment.

Example 1: Bullying

A group of employees deliberately spread malicious rumours about a colleague’s personal life and make belittling comments about her physical disability. The employee does not file a formal complaint but her supervisor witnesses her colleagues engaging in this conduct.

Example 2: Sexual Harassment

An employee is subject to repeated jokes and comments about his sexual orientation. He files a complaint with his human resources representative.

What are an employer’s obligations in these circumstances?

Under OHSA, the duty to investigate will be triggered by “incidents” of workplace harassment, even if there is no formal complaint. The Code of Practice produced by the Ministry of Labour suggests that the obligation arises whenever a supervisor becomes aware of an incident, even if the supervisor fails to pass that information on to the employer.  When the employer becomes aware of an incident of harassment, a trained investigator must complete an investigation and provide the employer with a written report of the results of the investigation.

Consequences of a failure to investigate?

Failure to investigate or appointing an untrained investigator could result in the Ministry of Labour ordering the employer to hire an external investigator at the employer’s expense. External investigators are typically very costly. Further, despite their high fees, there is currently a shortage of workplace investigators.

Failing to conduct a proper internal investigation could not only have consequences under OHSA, but could also lead to costly consequences at both the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and the Courts.

If an employer does not have an internal investigation procedure then an employee is much more likely to file a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal where an employer can be ordered to pay damages for failing to conduct an adequate investigation. Courts have also ordered employers to pay punitive damages for conducting faulty investigations.

Workplace investigations training

On Thursday February 14, 2019 we will be hosting a Workplace Investigation Training Session. This session will be moderated by  Monica Jeffrey of JMJ Workplace Investigation Law LLP. The cost is $399 plus H.S.T. for the day. Registration is limited. If you are interested in attending please contact us at 647) 204-8107 or at [email protected]

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