Preventing workplace violence & harassment
A new U.N.-related treaty broadly redefines the “world of work”
Delegates at the International Labour Conference (ILC) overwhelmingly adopted (439 for, 7 against) on June 21, 2019, the Violence and Harassment Convention and Recommendation.1 The new convention, approved by the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations, views occupational safety and health (OSH) as a subset of overall work well-being.
ILO Conventions are international treaties open to ratification by member states. Ratification creates a legal obligation to apply the provisions of the convention. Recommendations are intended to guide national action. Keep a keen eye on how policies and actions on violence and harassment may impact your workplace.
Purpose and scope
This recent Convention’s encourages development of national laws and practices to prevent or limit the range of unacceptable behaviors and practices, or threats of violence, likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm. This includes gender-based violence and harassment, such as sexual harassment.
This sweeping scope introduces a new concept: a cohesive world of work that extends beyond workplaces or occupations to cover workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, jobseekers, and job applicants, whether private or public, in formal or informal economies.
Convention Article 9(c) calls for risk assessment: identify hazards and assess risks of violence and harassment. Recommendation 8 suggests risk assessment include psychosocial hazards and risks, including those that “arise from discrimination, abuse of power relations, and gender, cultural and social norms that support violence and harassment.”
Guidance, training & awareness
Article 11(a) provides that each member state, in consultation with representative employers and workers organizations, shall seek to ensure that violence and harassment in the world of work is addressed in relevant national policies, concerning OSH, equality and non-discrimination, and migration.
The Recommendation section on guidance, training and awareness is broad and deep, and includes judges, police officers, public officials, journalists, and other media personnel to properly address and explain underlying causes and risk factors that drive violence and harassment in the world of work.
Don’t expect the U.S. feds to ratify the Convention. The U.S. feds are a global laggard on women’s issues – and the Convention rides on the wave of the global women’s movement. The U.S., for example, joins Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Tonga (consider this peer group) as the only nations not to ratify the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The ILO Maternity Protection Convention was adopted in Washington, D.C., in 1919. One-hundred years later the U.S., Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland (again, consider the company) are the only nations to fail to provide paid maternity leave – the key provision (and the preferred workplace OSH hierarchy of control) provided by the 1919 Convention and its updates.
Overall, the U.S. is loath to ratify ILO Conventions, often considering them to be radical and tilted in labor’s favor. But Mexico ratified OSH Convention No. 155 in 1984. Canada ratified Promotional Framework for OSH Convention No. 187 in 2011. The U.S. hasn’t ratified either Convention.
Yet the text of these conventions track existing U.S federal law, so don’t be surprised if subsidiaries and foreign partners expect U.S. employers to comply with them.
Psychosocial risk assessments are critical to prevent violence and harassment in the world of work, and should be prioritized by OSH pros for the sake of protection. Psychosocial risk may be poorly understood, however. The Canadian Standard Association (CSA) issued a “Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace” standard in 2013. The U.S. has no equivalent standard. Psychosocial issues encompass family problems, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexual abuse and violence.
Ilise Feitshans, a public health (ScM) and legal (JD) scholar with a doctorate in international relations, who serves as a Fellow in international law for the European Scientific Institute and works in the U.S., sees innovative breadth and depth in the new standard. Workplace pregnancy, issues of pay equity and ramifications of domestic violence likely fall under the Convention and Recommendation umbrella and represent a multidisciplinary break with the tradition of confining women’s health at work within industrial hygiene and safety engineering.
“The link between workplace harassment and overall health is weaker than, for example, exposure to asbestos or benzene, but that makes this Convention all the more fascinating from the standpoint thematic views of OSH worldwide,” Ilise commented. “Clearly there is political will regarding this subject which previously might have been considered to be at the edge of employer-based OSH concerns.”
Most U.S. workplaces have taken steps to prevent and limit violence. State anti-harassment laws are increasing. Laws passed in 2019 in California and New York, for example, are forcing HR updates to employee handbooks.
OSH has a prominent role in the new Violence and Harassment Convention, particularly when it comes to design and implementation of risk assessments. Business leadership may voluntarily adopt provisions of the Convention and Recommendation prior to government (most likely, state) intervention.
How business interprets and implements OSH’s role should best be defined by you -- the OSH pro. OSH pros should get a jump start on this topic before business leadership and HR asks for their view by surveying employee attitudes. Removing personal bias on harassment, particularly outdated views mostly held tightly by men, will be a great challenge for some OSH pros. You should remain alert to recommendations and policies on violence and harassment that can bring positive change in workplaces.