Employers on the front lines against violence

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New legislation could soon make it an employer’s responsibility to ensure the safety of workers who are victims of domestic abuse.

Earlier this month, the family violence death review committee recommended that changes be made to the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include family violence as a workplace hazard.

After reviewing the death of a woman in 2011, the committee felt that employers and co-workers, who knew of the abuse, should have done more.

While the spouse was offered counselling by his workplace, the woman was offered little to no help by hers, despite being repeatedly threatened over the phone and during workplace visits.

The changes would require employers to put in place policies, procedures, monitoring and accountability mechanisms as soon as they become aware of the abuse, and essentially make them accountable for family violence-related deaths.

Similar legislation was enacted in Ontario in June 2010.

With the human services minister, Irfran Sabir, promising to honour the recommendations, St. Albert Stop Abuse in Families is offering to help educate on how to recognize the signs of abuse, as well as work with managers and human resources personnel to implement safety planning.

As part of a national campaign called Make It Our Business, SAIF is offering to host one-hour hour lunch and learn sessions that will help employers and co-workers recognize the signs of abuse and recommend the proper supports.

Workplaces have an important role to play in stopping family violence, said SAIF executive director Doreen Slessor. Contrary to popular belief, domestic violence is often not contained to the household.

Last year, a study by the Brenda Stafford Centre and the University of Calgary found that violence followed 73 per cent of victims and offenders to the workplace and that 75 per cent of the time the workplace knew about the offender’s abusive tendencies.

“As the offender who knows you better than anybody in the whole world, they know what shift you work, they know when you work, they know where you work, they know what route you take to and from work, they know where you park your car…” said Slessor, who explained that domestic violence is about exerting dominance and control over all aspects of a victim’s life.

Slessor said that victims often feel embarrassed about disclosing abuse or are scared of losing their job if they do. By creating a supportive environment, victims might be more willing to seek support from the workplace.

This is where SAIF re-enters the picture. The not-for-profit said it will also help employers come up with solutions to protect workers from harassment and violence at the workplace, such as changing the employee’s phone number, making sure the employee doesn’t work in a location that is highly visible or easily accessible by the public, providing the employee with a well-lit parking spot located close to the building or arranging a schedule that is more flexible and less predictable.

“We at a grassroots level can prevent domestic homicides in our community, if we know how to recognize, respond and refer to domestic violence. That’s what our community education programs are all about,” said Slessor, who pointed out that SAIF also has programs geared toward offenders.

So far, SAIF’s offer to train employers in St. Albert has received a positive response. The chamber, as well as another private business, has reached out to set up sessions.

Chamber CEO Lynda Moffat said she is very supportive of the initiative and that the first step towards promoting the training is for the Chamber to receive it themselves.

“I think (domestic abuse) is the responsibility of everybody. Why should we be less responsible than the next-door neighbour or somebody else?” said Moffat.

That is exactly the kind of attitude Slesser is hoping for. She believes that with the proper education the issue of family violence will see the same response as seniors’ abuse.

Since 2005, when public awareness campaigns started warning of elder abuse, Slessor has gotten referrals from a number of organizations within the community, such as lawyers, banks, pharmacies and the 50+ club.

Between 2008 and 2014 there were 117 family violence-related deaths in Alberta.

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Michelle Ferguson