Health and Safety
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It is an employer’s responsibility to ensure the safety of all STAFF members at work

By Jenn Miller


In the past, it was an accepted attitude that domestic violence was a personal problem. What happened in the privacy of one’s home, behind closed doors, was to remain there. In fact, it used to be widely frowned upon to discuss personal issues at work, bring feelings or emotions related to personal problems into the workplace or take time away from the workplace to deal with personal or family-related issues.

However, thanks to the advent of movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, issues of domestic and sexual violence are being brought to the forefront of popular conversation. Despite these movements bringing mass attention to issues surrounding harassment and violence, domestic violence is still rarely discussed; it still seems to be taboo. For employers, the culture of secrecy surrounding domestic violence is problematic because employers have responsibilities if domestic violence has the potential to cause harm in the workplace.


What is domestic abuse?

Domestic abuse is defined as a pattern or behaviour used by one person to gain power or control over another person with whom they have or had an intimate relationship of some sort. Domestic violence is when the abuse is violent in nature. In 2016, Ontario passed Bill 132, which expanded the definitions included in its violence and harassment legislation. However, domestic abuse was left undefined, although the new bill did outline specific employer obligations to protect workers who are victims of domestic abuse. In fact, many jurisdictions in Canada fail to have proper definitions and legislation in place to ensure that victims of domestic abuse receive the same protections as victims of workplace harassment, violence or sexual harassment.

Domestic violence typically brings to mind images of heterosexual marriage unions; however, domestic abuse perpetrators can be anyone, in any type of relationship. Sources of domestic abuse include but are not limited to:

Current or former intimate partners (married, separated, common-law, divorced, living together, in short or long-term relationships)



Family members


When is domestic abuse and violence a workplace issue?

Domestic abuse and violence is a workplace issue when it occurs or spills over into the workplace. Domestic violence and abuse is a workplace issue when it actually occurs at the workplace. That means that the perpetrator has committed an act of violence or abuse at the work site against the victim and/or their coworkers. Further, domestic violence and abuse are workplace issues because they affect victims in various ways that impact their performance at work. Domestic violence and abuse has the potential to result in the following:

Reduced productivity


Decreased morale

Strained employee relationships

Increased stress

Potential harm to other employees

When domestic abuse has the potential to disrupt a workplace and put others at risk for severe injury due to violence, it becomes a workplace issue.


What is the employer’s obligation?

In many instances, employers fail to see domestic violence as a workplace hazard at all; after all, the word “domestic” in itself suggests a problem at home, outside of work. However, despite the fact that many employers struggle to understand their role in the protection of workers, domestic abuse is a very serious workplace issue. Sometimes employers do not understand where the line between respect for privacy ends and the need to help begins.

Because domestic abuse has a negative impact on the victim, the workforce and the organization, the employer is obligated to protect potential victims. If an employer becomes aware – or ought reasonably to be aware – that domestic violence would likely expose a worker to physical injury in the workplace, the employer must take every reasonable precaution in the circumstances for the protection of the worker.

It isn’t always easy to have a frank discussion about domestic abuse, especially if an employer suspects that an employee is a victim. However, due to the obligation to protect staff, employers must sometimes leave the comfort zone in an attempt to ensure that all workers are safe.

Instead of bombarding a potential victim with questions, be proactive. There are many ways to protect staff from the risks of domestic violence in the workplace that don’t force victims or potential victims to divulge personal information. For example, one of the best ways employers can exercise reasonable precaution is to institute a clearly worded policy that prohibits any violence, including domestic violence, in the workplace. Other ideas for creating a supportive and safe work environment may include:

Making educational materials available in accessible areas

Posting information that details where victims of domestic abuse can get help

Training and education to build awareness

Policies that allow for protected extended leaves for victims of abuse (in several provinces, such leaves are protected by law)

Policies that include accountability measures for abusers if they work for the organization

Emergency plans that include how to call for help, in the event of a domestic episode on work property

Reporting mechanisms that respect confidentiality and privacy

Domestic abuse is a workplace issue. It has the potential to spill over into the workplace as either an incident of abuse or violence or through the impact it has on the victim’s ability to work. Gone are the days of turning a blind eye to knowledge of domestic violence and no longer is it acceptable to disregard the threat of domestic violence and abuse at work because “what happens at home stays at home.” Employers are obligated to protect workers from domestic violence and they needn’t do so by asking victims for personal information. Employers can exercise reasonable precaution simply through the practice of due diligence, strong policies and education and training. The question of whether or not to help an employee who is a victim of domestic abuse no longer lies in the grey area of morality; it is a legal obligation and needs to be treated as such in the workplace.


Jenn Miller is the curriculum development coordinator for Occupational Safety Group.




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