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As North American legislators make changes that require employers to prevent all kinds of workplace harassment – not just human rights violations – Canadian fire departments need to understand how the new laws affect them, their workers and their unions.

April 26, 2010 
By Rosie Lombardi

As North American legislators make changes that require employers to prevent all kinds of workplace harassment – not just human rights violations – Canadian fire departments need to understand how the new laws affect them, their workers and their unions.

Legislation concerning workplace harassment remains vague and is especially complicated for fire departments, which are like second homes where firefighters work in close proximity for lengthy periods.

Ontario’s new legislation is particularly strict and the fire service is scrambling to meet the requirements of Bill 168, which comes into effect in June.

The amendment to Ontario’s Occu-pational Health and Safety Act makes violence and harassment in the workplace a safety issue. Other provinces such as Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec have already introduced similar legislation but Ontario’s goes farther and is part of a growing trend to introduce more reviews, training and enforcement to prevent incidents.


Several high-profile and horrific workplace incidents have driven this move. In 1999, Pierre Lebrun, a long-service OC Transpo bus driver in Ottawa, went on a shooting rampage at his workplace, killing four employees and two others before committing suicide. In 2005, Lori Dupont, a nurse at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Windsor, Ont., was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, a doctor who worked in the same hospital and subsequently killed himself by drug overdose.

Bill 168 has many controversial elements that will need to be sorted out by legal experts and case law. It grants workers the right to refuse to work where they feel endangered by workplace violence. It also requires that employers take reasonable precautions to protect workers from domestic violence that may occur in the workplace and result in physical injury. And it requires employers to advise employees about people with a history of violent behaviour if they encounter them in the course of their work, which may run counter to privacy rules.

Ontario fire departments should think carefully about the kinds of investigative steps they’ll commit to taking to comply with the legislation, says Cheryl Edwards, partner at Heenan Blaikie LLP, a Toronto-based law firm.

“The reason is that violence and harassment can be very broad as defined under Bill 168, so they should think about putting in mechanisms that allow them some discretion to say: ‘We don’t think your complaint about someone looking at you the wrong way meets the threshold.’ Otherwise, they’ll be committing to investigating every minor event of what someone might think is harassment instead of focussing on the real issues.”

■ Policy issues
The key to preventing harassment and violence in the workplace in any organization, not just the fire service, is education, says Fred Leblanc, president of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Bill 168 has rung a bell about the need to ensure an harassment-free workplace. But it’s quite an adjustment of the whole concept of health and safety compared with previous approaches,” he says.

The OPFFA is developing a tailored training campaign but there are many policy issues to sort out first with legal counsel and the Ministry of Labour , says Leblanc. “For example, some smaller fire services only have three members. So if two of them get into a fight, how do we deal with it? Can members invoke the right to refuse to work because the environment is unsafe? We’re entering uncharted waters.”

Another issue is that personal harassment under Bill 168 is not clearly defined, unlike harassment under the human rights code, which is based on gender, race and creed. There are no precedents, as past incidents of harassment in the fire service have been largely gender based and relatively minor, he says.

“But it’s not clear now. If Joe says something to Bob and he’s offended, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harassment. We’ll have to wait for the legislation to be tested a few times to see where investigators go with this.”

Leblanc points out that there are unique aspects in the fire service’s workplace that require greater tolerance all round about human foibles. “Unlike the police or EMS workers, our workplace is really a second home, and firefighters are together in a close environment for the entire shift. It’s incumbent on everyone to rise above personality issues that will inevitably come from that because they must work effectively to respond to emergencies.”

The domestic violence and history of violence provisions of the bill also raise issues, he says. “Situations sometimes arise where police and EMS workers know certain repeat callers have a history of domestic violence but our people don’t get that information due to the way dispatches work. Police and EMS won’t go in unless they have enough people to deal with the situation. But there’s resistance to sharing that information with firefighters because it has privacy implications, so our members have asked if they can refuse to enter that ‘workplace’. We’re exploring this with the [Ministry of Labour].”

But these types of situations are fairly rare, he adds. “We already have rules around harassment and we’ve dealt with violence before but we’ll need to broaden our training. There won’t be much change for most fire departments beyond working through complaints and formalizing processes for dealing with them under the legislation,” says Leblanc.

■ Training to create a respectful workplace
According to Bill 168, training should be provided to all employees to prevent violence and harassment. “We urge employers to look at workplace violence as a continuum,” says Bill Badzmierowski, director of instructor services at the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), an international training firm based in Brookfield, Wis.

Many situations that start as simple discourtesy and incivility in the workplace can escalate into more serious words and acts, he says. Most incidents of employees ”going postal” have precursors in conflicts and verbal exchanges and there are often indicators in the way people behave that should raise alarms.

“If someone gets in your face your first impulse is to talk or hit back,” says Badzmierowski. “But there are other things you can do and most people don’t know what they are. How close you stand to the person, your body language and facial expressions make a big difference. There are practical ways to train employees to defuse a situation and prevent its escalation.” .

Badzmierowski says incidents of violence between firefighters are fairly rare, based on his experience working with the New York Fire Department post-September 11 and other fire services in Canada and the U.S..

“Incidents are more frequent with the public because firefighters are trained to take charge of situations and give directives. They’re often perceived as being negative, demanding and condescending – particularly if people don’t want to hear what the fire inspector is saying – but they’re just doing their job and taking charge.”

There are several aspects of firefighter culture that are unique, he says. “They tend to rib, tease and challenge each other a lot. There are times when some firefighters don’t appreciate this, and even though it’s unintentional, this behaviour could qualify as harassment under Bill 168.”

Another aspect is the irreverent and sometimes dark humour. “For example, a firefighter faces tragic situations and may encounter a death in the course of work. But someone back at headquarters may say something like, ‘Oh well, all in a day’s work.’ It can really push someone’s buttons on that particular day, even though it’s an innocuous comment. It may not be intended to mean, ‘Buck up, it’s your job’ – but it may be heard that way.”

Changing some of these cultural aspects in firefighting organizations is a long process, as they’re often deeply entrenched. “Our training focuses on learning alternative ways to deal with people when things get tense and practicing those skills. We don’t say you should never joke, but before you do, stop and think what someone may have faced, and maybe check in with them first to ensure they’re OK.”Is this still Badzmierowski talking?

He says he gets many questions from firefighters about whether the workshop training will really work in the field. “We don’t fight the resistance they sometimes show during training because we challenge them to try it and they’re open to this. We often get positive feedback afterwards like, ‘Someone was about to punch me but I took a step back so they couldn’t reach me – like you said in the training – and it worked.’”

The Calgary fire department introduced a code of conduct defining acceptable behaviour five years ago, and many of these aspects are now part of Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, defining safe workplaces, says acting deputy chief of administration Glenn Bjolvdrud.

“Many things that used to be considered rites of passage are no longer deemed appropriate. A lot of the emphasis in our training is on ways to create that inclusiveness without crossing the line into offensiveness.”

A generational shift is underway in terms of acceptable behaviour, Bjolvdrud says. “We tend to see younger rather older firefighters voicing complaints. They’ll respond to inappropriate comments by saying, ‘I don’t like that. It offended me.’ Then it’s incumbent on the officer to step in and stop it.”

Notwithstanding the fact that the program has been in place for several years and improvements have been made, there is still work to be done to change the culture, says Bjolvdrud. “It will take more time before all these behaviours are corrected. The hardest ones to change are firefighters who’ve been with us over 30 years – they have a tougher time adapting to organizational change.”

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Fire Fighting in Canada.

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