Aug 12 2011

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Handbook, online material address domestic violence at work

By Darah Hansen, The Vancouver Sun

British Columbia is set to become the second province in Canada to bring in guidelines aimed at keeping domestic violence out of the workplace.

WorkSafeBC has been developing a handbook and online training resource for employers for more than a year, but the information came to public attention following a fatal assault on a 24-year-old newspaper worker in Surrey last month.

Ravinder Bhangu died July 28 while working at Sach Di Awaaz, a Punjabi-English newspaper. She was seated at her desk when her estranged husband allegedly came into the office and attacked her with an axe.

Roberta Ellis, WorkSafeBC senior vice-president of corporate affairs, said the proposed guidelines – due to be finalized this fall – are designed to do more than make employers aware of their legal obligations around violence prevention on the job.

They also provide information and training to help employers recognize the signs and symptoms of domestic abuse and better understand how to talk about it with an employee in a safe and supportive manner.

“[Domestic violence] is a very difficult topic,” she said. “It can very often be invisible, out of fear sometimes, out of embarrassment sometimes. The intent of [the guidelines] is to try to raise the profile on this.”

The guidelines stem from a special review panel on domestic violence convened by the province’s chief coroner last spring. The panel examined the circumstances surrounding 11 incidents of domestic violence, resulting in 29 deaths dating back to 1995.

Among its recommendations, the panel urged work safety officials to develop a model that employers could use to enhance employee safety and protection from the threat of domestic violence on the job.

Around the same time, Ontario was in the final stages of beefing up provincial occupational health and safety legislation, specifically to address domestic violence in the workplace, as a result of a high-profile murder of a nurse by her partner at the hospital where they were both employed.

Ellis said B.C. was able to borrow from that material to develop its own handbook. It added an online training component that provides guidance on how to create a workplace environment in which someone suffering domestic abuse feels safe to talk about it with a boss or supervisor. It also gives examples of abusive behaviour, including repeated phone calls, stalking or a partner turning up at the workplace and pestering co-workers with questions.

Already in B.C., employers are obligated under the Workers’ Compensation Act to minimize the risk of violence to workers arising from the job.

But Larry Page, a labour and employment lawyer in Vancouver, said employers are also obliged to take an active role in protecting their workers from domestic violence in the workplace if they are made aware of a specific threat. In that situation, an employer must notify both police and employees who may be affected by the violence, as well as identify and take steps to mitigate potential harm.

Mickey Gill, publisher of Sach Di Awaaz, said no one knew of the threat against Bhangu, nor the details of her domestic situation.

“There was no indication. [The day of the assault] was just a regular work day,” he said in a telephone interview.

Gill said there is a lingering sense of guilt among both staff and management about what could have been done to prevent the death. But, he said, “everyone acted accordingly given the circumstances in front of them. There really couldn’t have been anything in place that could have prevented this.”

Manmeet Singh, 26, is charged with first-degree murder in the attack on his wife. He also faces charges of aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in relation to injuries suffered by a male employee who tried to save Bhangu.

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