OHS Canada Magazine

Up in Arms

April 11, 2013

Health & Safety Violence in the Workplace

On December 14, 2012, the massacre of 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut made headlines around the world.

On December 14, 2012, the massacre of 20 students and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut made headlines around the world.

The Newtown shooting is but the latest in a string of high-profile violent gun incidents in the United States, following the massacre at a movie theatre last year in Aurora, Colorado and the shooting of a former congresswoman during a constituency meeting in 2011 in Tucson.

However, the workers who were put at risk in the crossfires in public workplaces are by no means unique to our neighbour down south. The shooting in Toronto’s Eaton Centre shopping mall and the killing of a man shot point-blank in Little Italy along a strip of restaurants last summer have — for some people — evoked memories of 2005’s ‘summer of the gun,’ which claimed more than 50 people in Toronto. 

It also raises questions of just how safe workplaces with public access really are and the practicality of safeguarding employee well-being on these premises. Some say enhanced security measures are in order, while others are calling for a more radical solution — arming vulnerable workers in the name of safety.


In the wake of the Newtown incident, former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced on December 20 that $10 million will be earmarked to enhance security in the province’s elementary schools with improved front door locks, entry buzzers and security cameras.


“The investment that the government has just made for front-door security is a step in the right direction,” says Sam Hammond, president of the Ontario Elementary Teachers’ Federation in Toronto. But he adds that beefing up security in schools goes beyond locked doors, considering that the student population in an elementary school can range anywhere between 300 and 1,500.

More effective steps to bolster security in educational facilities include building on the government’s existing safety programs, and creating procedures and training to improve how principals, educational workers, parents, police and members of health and safety committees work together to ensure that the physical environment — such as locks and the public announcement system — are functioning properly.

While arming schools has been part of the debate, Hammond says it exists within the context of a larger focus on safety in elementary schools and lockdown procedures. “I don’t personally think it is the time to be saying, ‘Here, the answer is to put armed police officers or individuals in our schools to ensure their safety.’”

David Hyde, principal consultant with David Hyde and Associates, a national security and workplace violence prevention consulting firm in Toronto, agrees. “We have tighter gun control, there aren’t as many guns accessible on the street here in Canada as in the United States,” he says, citing a lack of public, political and cultural support for the idea. “I don’t see an acceptance and a demand even in the wake of the Sandy Hook incident for there to be firearms in Canadian schools,” he adds.


Schools are by no means the only workplaces that are at risk of violence, considering their function as a public institution housing a large and vulnerable population.

Occupational groups such as the health care sector, correctional facilities, social services, education, municipal housing inspection and public works have also been identified as high-risk by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario.

Certain factors can predispose an occupation or a workplace to an increased risk of violence, notes information from the Ontario Ministry of Labour in Toronto. They include working with the public (particularly if the interaction can result in customer discontent); handling money, valuables or prescription drugs; protecting or securing valuables; transporting people and goods; and positions with public or community contact.

Glenn French, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, says research has shown that individuals who work with the public have a greater chance of being threatened, assaulted or violated on the job. He cites animal patrol workers and traffic enforcement officers as among the high-risk group given that the nature of their job often requires them to work alone in a public setting.

“I think when you have people who work with the public, especially those in a regulatory capacity, then those organizations need to be very, very careful making sure that they have a clear understanding of the risks involved to those employees and what the remedies will be that these individuals can ask for,” French says.


Recent developments have seen certain occupational groups arming their employees as a means of protection.

In 2006, the federal government approved $785 million in funding to train and equip Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers with firearms over a 10-year period. By March of 2016, officers at all land and marine ports of entry and those performing enforcement functions will carry a firearm in the line of duty.

Currently, about 5,500 land and marine positions are designated as armed throughout Canada. Implementation is well underway and as of January 31, more than 2,500 armed officers have already been trained and deployed, reports Esme Bailey, senior media spokesperson with the CBSA in Ottawa.

“From the onset of the Arming Program, the CBSA has set a high standard to ensure the safety of the public and its employees,” Bailey says, adding that the agency has partnered with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to design a rigorous and comprehensive Duty Firearm Course customized to the duties and realities of CBSA officers. The course trains officers on the safe use, handling, storage and transportation of the duty firearm, and dealing with dangerous situations.

“CBSA officers are aware of the situations in which force may be used and are trained in its proper use and application while ensuring they do not place themselves or other officers or members of the public in undue danger,” Bailey says. “Operational procedures have also been developed and designed to ensure the safety of the public and CBSA officers.”

An evaluation study on the arming initiative conducted in 2009 reports that equipping officers with firearms enhances border security and officer effectiveness by providing them with a broader range of options when responding to dangerous situations and pursuing enforcement activities.

“Border services officers face real threats of assault and/or bodily harm while conducting their duties. Activities such as the interception of high-risk individuals, weapons and drugs present an ongoing risk to the safety of officers and the public,” the study notes.

The shooting of a border services officer while on duty at the Peace Arch crossing in Surrey, British Columbia last October, is a case in point.

Park wardens are another group that has taken up arms to stay safe on the job. In 2008, the federal government authorized Parks Canada Agency to create 100 armed park warden positions to provide law enforcement. An audit report dated August of 2011 concluded that overall, there is a sound program of law enforcement-arming initiative at Parks Canada.

Although the program is young, the report notes that much work has been done in developing pro
cedures and guidelines, and the key elements of management control framework were present.


While some may argue that enforcement jobs involve a higher risk of violence compared to other sectors, the call to arms is also being considered in workplaces that may not be deemed high risk.

Consider the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, which was at one point in time mulling the idea of arming its special constables who patrol its neighbourhoods, following the spate of shooting incidents across the city last summer.

Sinead Canavan, a spokesperson for the social housing provider, says its community safety unit special constables are tasked with community policing and patrols. They also respond to a variety of calls and situations, such as dealing with property trespassing incidents and liquor licence violations.

“In the line of their duties, they may encounter criminal activity and difficult situations,” Canavan says. “It is possible that when working to resolve situations, the person they are dealing with could become violent.”

Canavan adds that these officers are accredited through an agreement with the Toronto Police Services Board, which specifies their authority and designation as peace officers — not police officers. “In any situation where the safety of special constables is jeopardized to a level that the use of a gun would be considered, the special constables contact the Toronto Police Service,” she says, adding that no change is currently being considered to their use of force options. “Arming our special constables would not increase individual staff or community safety.”

While the special constables receive regular training with the Toronto Police Service and are equipped with defensive tools and techniques in case of violent behaviour, Canavan says residents are encouraged to contact police directly for emergencies and major crimes, while the special constables support their investigations.


While arming employees deemed vulnerable or exposed to potentially dangerous situations at work has been implemented in certain occupations, French warns that these protective measures also carry a certain amount of risk. Misuse, accidental discharge and weapons getting into the wrong hands are  just some of the things that can go wrong.

“Accidents do happen,” cautions Jennifer Dawn Carlson, a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.


Workplace violence incidents are much more common in certain employment sectors, says a 2007 Statistics Canada report, Criminal Victimization in the Workplace.

An examination of a 12-month period across Canada in 2004 found that 33 per cent of workplace violence incidents involved a victim who worked in social assistance or health care services; 14 per cent involved employees in accommodation or food services; and 11 per cent were committed against those in educational services.

The report also adapted a 2006 study, Homicide in Canada, 2005, from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Between 2001 and 2005, 69 homicides took place during the course of a worker’s legal employment — representing an average of 14 victims killed each year while on the job. Homicide victims fell under the following job categories: taxi drivers (11), police officers (10), bar or restaurant workers (eight), retail employees (eight), general labourers (four), inspection or enforcement officers (three) and security guards (three), while the remaining victims worked in other occupations.

Several high-profile incidents in Canada in recent years have also increased awareness about workplace violence. They include the former OC Transpo employee who killed four people in 1999 and the murder of a nurse at Hôtel Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor in 2005.

She cites a widely circulated video on YouTube showing a police officer who ironically shot himself in the leg while delivering a presentation on gun safety to a group of school children. “Ultimately, employers and employees must weigh the possibility of a violent criminal encounter against the possibility of accidental violence.”

Hyde says there are very rare exceptions in which private citizens are legally allowed to carry a firearm while executing their job duties. “Section 20 of the Firearms Act lays down very, very prescriptively when private citizens are allowed to carry firearms in this country,” he says. They include those in the armoured car industry who transport or protect cash and high-value shipment goods, licensed professionals repelling or trapping wild animals and the nuclear industry.

For businesses that are not legally allowed to issue firearms to their employees for protection, they can contract the services of an armoured car to undertake high-risk jobs, such as physical cash transfers. Hiring paid duty cops during times of escalated risk is another option, Hyde suggests.

Ontario’s Bill 168, which requires employers to develop policies and programs to address workplace violence and strengthen protections for workers, could offer some guidance. Employers must assess workplace violence risks that may arise from the nature of the workplace, the type of work or the conditions of work.

Measures to control these risks must be incorporated into the workplace violence program, which should include procedures for summoning immediate assistance when workplace violence occurs or is likely to occur, and controlling risks identified in the assessment of risks. Workers must also be provided with information and instruction on the contents of these policies and programs, notes information from Ontario’s Ministry of Labour.

Hyde suggests that addressing the potential for physical threats, such as those posed by guns, is no different than what is prescribed under Bill 168. “It is just more specialized, looking at the human factors, the risks that humans present to the employee and it can be a little more dynamic.”

Carlson’s dissertation, Clinging to their Guns? Gender, Race and the Politics of Policing, which looks at the increasing popularity of guns as self-defence tools among Americans, argues that the desire is driven by a safety-first mentality. “This narrows arguments surrounding security into a cost-benefits analysis so that we end up asking questions along the lines of ‘can we afford it,’ rather than ‘should we embrace these kinds of security measures in the first place?’” she contends.

However, arming employees in vulnerable workplaces does not necessarily mean ready access to these weapons for self-defence purposes or that staff possesses the necessary skills to handle the weapon should a violent situation occur.

Hyde cites the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech as examples where having an armed and trained security presence did very little to minimize violence. He adds that it is important for employers to seriously consider the question of whether equipping their workplaces with firearms will address — or introduce risks into the environment.

As every workplace is unique, each must be assessed on its own merits. However, Hyde observes that blanket assessments are often done and applied across multiple workplaces.

This can prove problematic as one branch of a firm may have little face-to-face inter
action with the public, while another is bringing clients into inner office areas or have staff engaging with the public beyond the office.

Part of the security measures in workplaces that interact with the public includes taking preventive steps so that volatile situations or agitated people cannot get their hands on a weapon in the workplace. Having multiple doors for employees to retreat quickly if necessary, access to panic alarms and use of surveillance cameras to make people aware that they are being monitored at all times are other effective measures, Hyde adds.


Regardless of whether it is through members’ feedback or as topics of discussion at annual general meetings, deploying police officers in schools has been debated for several years, says Ruby Hoskins, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils in Conception Bay South.


Although certain occupations are legally allowed to carry firearms, their usage is regulated by strict requirements. To be authorized to carry a handgun or restricted long gun for a lawful occupational purpose, such as trapping or working in a wilderness area, an individual must be a Canadian resident, have a firearms licence with restricted privileges and obtain an Authorization to Carry permit from the Canadian Firearms Program, notes information from the RCMP.

Licensed professional trappers and individuals who need protection from wild animals — often in a remote wilderness location — may be authorized to carry a handgun or restricted long gun. In a remote wilderness area, a non-restricted firearm may be left in an unlocked vehicle providing:

• the vehicle cannot be locked;

• the firearm has been made inoperable by means of a secure locking device (unless the firearm is needed for predator control); and

• it is placed out of sight.

With regards to safe storage in a remote wilderness area, non-restricted firearms do not have to be made inoperable or locked up. They must be unloaded, but the ammunition can be kept handy.

The federation, comprising of school councils and school-based parent organizations in Newfoundland and Labrador, believes that an increased police presence in schools through initiatives, such as the school resource officer program, will enhance safety in and around schools.

“School resource officers would develop and implement crime prevention and safety programs for students that would be age appropriate for elementary, junior high and high school programs,” Hoskins says. She adds that community policing programs that work with education partners in the community will promote dialogue and education programs in schools, and establish effective relationships between police, schools, students and parents or guardians.”

Jerry Chadwick, a trustee with the Toronto District School Board for Scarborough East, says the program helps build a positive relationship between police officers and students. “In one of my schools in particular, the kids go to them, they talk to them, they take problems with them and the officers are very visible in the school with these kids.”

As a former principal, Chadwick understands firsthand how measures like the locked-door policy will have an impact on security in schools. “I have often come across people in my building that I, as an administrator, or my staff didn’t know who they were, why they were in the building or how they had gained access,” he offers. “The fact that they would have to be buzzed in by someone on staff is a good thing.”

However, some educators and administrators have expressed concerns about having school resource officers on school grounds. “[Familiarizing] people with guns, no matter what the purpose, is not what I consider a good idea,” contends Sheila Cary-Meagher, Toronto District School Board trustee for the Beaches — East York area. “I blocked at every opportunity the presence of these officers in my schools. They could have done just as much good as volunteers in regular clothes.”

Carlson cautions that such measures could provide a false sense of security and that locked doors alone cannot help prevent incidents the likes of Sandy Hook. “A high-capacity firearm is a pretty effective tool for shooting off a lock,” she says. “I would also be concerned that door locks could actually lock in the shooter and create a situation in which first responders would be unable to get to victims effectively.”

For Hyde, the locked-door policy is only one component of a larger safety plan that should address other aspects. This includes electronic security and surveillance systems, requiring staff to check and validate the identity of visitors before permitting access; training staff on the protocols and procedures surrounding the locked-door policy and having anti-propping mechanisms in place that will activate an alarm if the door is left opened beyond a certain period of time.

“Effective security is about a lot more than a locked-door policy because some of the threats come from inside the school,” Hyde cautions. He adds that schools also need to assess potential threats from within, citing volunteer groups, community members and students themselves on schools compounds as examples.

“There needs to be protocols and assessment measures in place so that any threats that are bubbling inside the school can also be assessed as well as threats from outside. A locked-door policy is not going to prevent an inside threat,” he adds.

Apart from engineering safety measures, Hammond says schools also need to ensure that safety procedures are being followed by all staff, including relief teachers.

“Who would have thought we would now have lockdown drills in our schools on a regular basis?” Hoskins questions. “Society is changing and we must continue to be proactive in providing guidance and services in our education system, rather than react in times of crisis.”

Anna Willats, a professor at the Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor/Advocate program at George Brown College in Toronto, is unequivocal in her stance on workplaces taking up arms. “Violence begets violence, arming people begets more arming of people,” Willats says. “I don’t think there is any evidence at all that shows putting guns in the hands of more and more people is helpful.”  

Ann Ruppenstein is a writer in Toronto.


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