Blog Post #360 – A Dangerous and Violent Place

Article posted January 2008 – OH&S Canada magazine

By: Umair Abdul

Grant De Patie worked the graveyard shift at an Esso gas station in the quiet community of Maple Ridge, British Columbia. The 24-year-old thought it was an okay job, says his father, Doug De Patie, it being the latest of several gas station jobs Grant had held over his short work life.

The appeal wasn’t the work or the vehicles — Grant didn’t even own a car –but the cash. An avid BMX racer and mountain biker, with boundless passion for scuba diving and all things outdoors, “a gas station job was something to earn money for his real life,” says his father.

But that real life came to an end on March 8, 2005.

There was something about Darnell Pratt, a 16-year-old customer that night. Suspecting the teen of being a gas and dasher — and knowing that some employers penalized employees for stolen gas — he stepped outside to speak with Pratt. He scribbled down the licence plate number of the stolen Chrysler LeBaron that Pratt was driving at the time.

Pratt started to speed away and struck Grant. The young worker became caught in the car’s undercarriage, and was dragged for more than seven kilometres before his lifeless body broke free. He succumbed to horrific injuries, the aftermath showing skin abrasions to the bone, a collapsed right lung, a torn liver and exposed bones.

Witnesses at Pratt’s manslaughter trial testified that he heard Grant screaming. Still, he drove on.

The gruesome death of Grant De Patie, sadly, is far from the only example of violence against gas station workers in recent months and years. In August, 44-year-old employee Delores Reynolds was brutally sexually assaulted and stabbed after buzzing in a man to the Ultramar gas station where she worked in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Then there’s Brigitte Serre, stabbed dozens of times in January, 2006 while working the night shift alone at a station in Montreal.

Incidents of physical violence and criminal victimization at the workplace are often catapulted into the mainstream media. But what occupations are most vulnerable? Have attempts to legislate and monitor high-risk workplaces helped curtail incidents of violence? And, on the whole, is on-the-job physical violence on the rise?

“It’s like nailing jelly to the wall in terms of getting a firm percentage, but it seems to be increasing,” says Glenn French, president of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence (CIWV) in Toronto.

The exact state of affairs, however, remains unclear. “Given the lack of national data on workplace violence, the nature, severity and prevalence of the problem have been difficult to quantify,” Sylvain de Leseleuc of Statistics Canada’s Canadian Centre for Justice Studies notes in the preamble to his report on criminal victimization in the workplace, released in February of 2007. Findings were based on information from the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) on victimization.

The workplace victimization study looked at self-reported data from the GSS, which probed 24,000 households about the prevalence of physical assault, sexual assault and robbery. The GSS notes that almost a fifth of self-reported incidents of violent victimization occurred at the respondent’s workplace. And a fifth of those incidents resulted in physical injuries to the victim.

Grant De Patie’s injuries were so severe, there could be no recovery. The last footage of Grant on the surveillance camera shows him reaching for a pen and paper — the same piece of paper later found in his pocket with Darnell Pratt’s licence plate number. WorkSafeBC later issued a $24,487 penalty against the gas station after provincial investigators determined that the operator had not properly trained employees on late-night procedures, and purchases were not being processed through a side window.

Doug De Patie says his understanding is that the workplace safety committee hadn’t met because of a scheduling conflict, and both the late-night, door-locking policy and the pay-at-the-window measures were not being enforced. In fact, he reports, propane tanks had been stacked in front of the payment window.

In the wake of Grant’s death, WorkSafeBC kicked off a three-month enforcement campaign, during which violations and orders were issued as part of almost every inspection. By July of 2006, enforcement officers had carried out 366 checks of gas stations. They determined that most operations fell short on site-specific procedures, and there was little to no documentation to show that worker instruction, orientation and supervision had been satisfactorily performed.

Some perspective

Based on the GSS sample size and its finding of an on-the-job link to one in five cases of self-reported violent victimization, that adds up to more than 350,000 workplace-based incidents of violence.

So what do health care workers, taxi drivers, bus operators and retail workers have in common? That may sound like a prelude to a punch line, but the truth is far more sobering: each occupation has been identified as among those hit hardest by workplace violence.

Dr. Kevin Kelloway and Dr. Lori Francis of the CN Centre for Occupational Health and Safety at St. Mary’s University in Halifax recently surveyed a regionally representative 1,400 workers in the province and found that a fifth had been threatened with physical assault on the job.

Incident rates can be higher in certain occupations. Dr. Kelloway points to additional research done at the university which found 60 per cent of Halifax Metro Transit bus operators have experienced physical violence.

The CIWV’s French also identifies nurses, long-term care workers, restaurant and bar employees, cabbies and government workers as employees who are at a higher risk of victimization.

With regard to homicides, a Statistics Canada Homicide Survey found that 11 taxi drivers were killed on the job between 2001 and 2005. That compares to 10 police officers fatally injured during the same period.

Other common targets of deadly workplace violence include bar and restaurant employees, eight; retail workers, eight; labour- ers, four; health or social service workers, three; inspection or enforcement occupations, three; and security guards, three.

No familiar face

As experience shows, high-risk occupations run the gamut from skilled to unskilled, unionized to non-unionized and white collar to blue collar.

Last November, for example, the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) issued a call for enhanced protections under the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act after three nurses were attacked, two receiving serious injuries, at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Calling the situation unacceptable, ONA president Linda Haslam-Stroud charges that employers are not taking every reasonable precaution to protect front-line nurses.

Unions and associations often have to contend with the perception that violence is part of the job, particularly in “service” sectors. Barry Doyle, health and safety officer for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), notes the perception is starting to change, after a long period where workers accepted violence as a natural and expected part of their job description.

“Some of these workers are being verbally harassed or punched and kicked on a weekly basis,” Doyle charges. “We have to raise consciousness about it and let people know that you shouldn’t be accepting of workplace conditions that demoralize you.”

CUPE Ontario, for example, recently initiated a province-wide campaign tour and call for action on workplace violence. In addition to lobbying the provincial government to introduce explicit violence requirements in the OH&S Act, the campaign includes media conferences, workshops and stops at regional offices to raise public and worker awareness.

Perception and available information is an ever-changing thing. In British Columbia, before Grant De Patie’s death, Work-SafeBC did not typically regard gas stations as high-risk workplaces. Recorded numbers seemed to support that view, there having been only two acts of deadly violence, including the grisly incident involving De Patie, since 1982.

But it became evident with the subsequent gas station review that changes were necessary. “It is clear that these employers do not have a complete understanding of their legal responsibilities to protect workers who are working alone and/or who may be susceptible to acts of violence in their workplace,” Betty Pirs, executive director of prevention services for WorkSafeBC, said in July of 2006.

Despite the many jobs that workplace violence can touch, there are a few common factors that have been shown to make workers more vulnerable to physical violence or violent crime. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety notes that these include the following:

– working alone, in small numbers or in isolated or low-traffic areas;
– employment at night; – having a mobile workplace (such as a taxicab);
– carrying out inspection or enforcement duties;
– working with unstable or violent persons (such as in social services or criminal justice settings);
– interacting with the public; and,
– handling money, valuables or prescription drugs.

Legal speak

The legislative approach to violence in Canada, as well, ranges far and wide. A handful of provinces have violence-specific obligations, some deal with the threat through working alone requirements, and yet others address the issue through use of the general duty clause (every reasonable precaution must be taken to ensure worker health and safety) within provincial oh&s acts.

In Ontario, for instance, the Ministry of Labour (MOL) and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) have embarked on what lawyer Cheryl Edwards calls a “province-wide workplace violence prevention initiative.” The initiative comes on the heels of inspectors being trained on revised operating procedures for dealing with workplace violence, says Edwards, who heads up the OH&S and WSIB Practice at Heenan Blaikie in Toronto.

Edwards reports that the MOL issued 20 orders in the first four months of 2007 that required employers to take steps to prevent violence on the job. Orders are not limited to workplaces with a history of violence, she emphasizes.

Even among provinces with specific workplace violence provisions, definitions and approaches vary. For instance, section 4.27 of British Columbia’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulation defines violence as any attempted or actual exercise by a person “other than a worker” of physical force to cause injury to a worker, including any threatening statement or behaviour that gives reasonable cause for the worker to believe he or she is at risk of injury.

Employers in the province are required to conduct a risk assessment that takes into consideration a workplace’s location, business undertaking and previous experience, as well as the occupational experiences of similar workplaces. If a risk of injury is identified, steps must be taken to eliminate or minimize that risk.

Alberta and Saskatchewan, in contrast, define violence as any “threatened, attempted or actual” conduct of a person that causes or is likely to cause physical injury. (It does not specify persons who are not workers.) Both jurisdictions set out comprehensive measures to help avert workplace violence or address matters should an incident occur.

Nova Scotia recently became the latest province to enact workplace violence regulations, which were announced last April and focus on improving safety in high-risk sectors. Among these flagged sectors are health care, retail, government services, and schools and community colleges.

Employers in the province were given six months to complete a hazard assessment and develop a plan to address any identified hazards. An implementation schedule must be in place within a year.

Outside the box

On the mental side of things, but still related to violence, provincial jurisdictions such as Quebec have been applauded for legislation that includes psychological harassment. In 2004, the Commission des norms du travail added new provisions to the provincial labour standards legislation to protect workers from psychological harassment. The term was defined as “any vexatious behaviour in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures, that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee.”

Previous incidents have shown that verbal abuse can escalate to physical violence.

A case for a wider view of “violence” could certainly be made with the OC Transpo shootings in Ottawa on April 7, 1999, where a bus driver went on a rampage and gunned down several employees before committing suicide. It later emerged that Pierre Lebrun had been verbally harassed and abused because of his speech impediment.

Signs of previous abuse were also evident at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor, Ontario, where nurse Lori Dupont was stabbed to death by her former boyfriend and colleague, Dr. Marc Daniel. Dupont had been harassed by Dr. Daniel, going so far as to seek a peace bond before he killed her in a hospital recovery room on November 12, 2005.

“Generally speaking, when the analysis shakes out in some of the most horrible and high-profile cases, the thinking around it suggests that it is important to have an all-encompassing [definition] of violence,” says Edwards.

Dr. Kelloway is of the view that, to some extent, physical violence and psychological harassment are separate issues. “One of the great myths about violence is that you have to worry about disgruntled co-workers” who have been pushed over the edge, he says. “When you actually look at the data, it’s extraordinarily rare.”

Violence at the hands of members of the public and clients is far more common, Dr. Kelloway contends.

It is something of which Grant De Patie’s family is intimately and painfully aware.

His parents and grandparents, buoyed by the support of the British Columbia Federation of Labour (BCFL), lobbied for more legislative protections for late-night workers. The campaign was successful, with the province now requiring that every new or returning worker receive oh&s training and orientation specific to their place of employment, including those at service stations.
The second component of what is known as “Grant’s Law” was approved on October 4, 2007 — what would have been his 27th birthday. As of February 1, 2008, British Columbia will require mandatory pre-payment systems at service stations to help protect late-night workers.

However, says BCFL president Jim Sinclair, “we know that regulations alone aren’t enough. Enforcing these new rules is the only way to ensure workers will be safe.”

“Working alone” provisions are increasingly going hand in hand with workplace violence requirements, Edwards says, likely as a result of the vulnerability of lone workers in some “high-risk” occupations. “There have been some terrible tragedies that could have been completely avoided if there [had been] working alone legislation,” she argues.

Doug De Patie has become a vocal supporter of working alone legislation. He believes employers should provide glass barriers or have two attendants on any shift in order to protect employees who work late nights.

De Patie has called on other provinces to enact requirements similar to those now in place in British Columbia. “These are things that employers should have always been doing, but there is a grey area,” he suggests.

One such call came following the vicious assault on Delores Reynolds at the gas station in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Reynolds managed to contact Halifax police at about 2:30 am on August 21, after she was sexually assaulted, stabbed and had her throat slashed. Bleeding profusely, she fell unconscious when police arrived on the scene.

Reynolds’s attacker was later found in some bushes near an on-ramp to a highway. He was charged with sexual assault, attempted murder and robbery.

The idea of legislation is gaining favour in sectors where working alone is regarded as a significant risk factor, such as 24-hour gas stations and retail stores. In Halifax, the province’s gas retailers’ association is calling for employers to double up staff on graveyard shifts to ensure employees are properly protected.

However, gas station operators in the province have come out strongly against the idea of mandating a two-person-minimum policy, pointing to additional costs.

Graham Conrad, executive director of the Retail Gas Dealers Association in Nova Scotia, suggests that it may not be all or nothing. What association officials would like to see, says Conrad, is station operators investing in safety barriers or, alternatively, increasing their staffing requirements. “Our position was that under no circumstances should an employee be working after hours in a facility where they are not completely protected from the public,” he argues.

The association’s proposals are in line with working alone legislation already on the books in some provinces. Edwards notes that, for the most part, existing legislation on working alone does not demand more than one employee on shift.

“They don’t prohibit working alone, but they define working alone as a situation that would be isolated. They require certain steps, such as calling a particular contact and maintaining hourly contact,” she reports.

The general approach means employers have the option of addressing working alone dangers by adding staff, installing safety barriers and adopting communications policies that better protect lone workers.

Doug De Patie and his family have tried to gain closure on Grant’s death. But picking up the pieces is easier said than done.

“I have nightmares about being dragged under that car,” says De Patie, his voice wavering. “If there is anything good that can come of this, we can take this and stop it from happening again.”

So great a loss for $12.30 worth of gas!

My opinion,

In Ontario, the OHSA, Part III.0.1 or section 32.0.1 to 32.0.7, deals with violence and harassment in the workplace and was first introduced on June 15, 2010. Since then, all companies MUST have a separate policy to deal with violence and another to deal with harassment. All companies MUST have a plan and procedure to initiate the policies. A risk assessment must be completed prior and cover the risks of violence that may arise due to the nature of the workplace, the type of work being completed at the site and the conditions of the work. The assessment would consider and take into account,

a) Circumstances that would be common to similar workplaces,
b) Circumstances specific to the workplace, and
c) Any other prescribed elements.

There also a need to complete a reassessment as often as necessary to ensure the related policy continues to protect workers.

Remember – In Ontario, “ALL Accidents are Preventable”

‘Work’ and ‘Play’ safe.

Daniel L. Beal
CHSEP – Foundation Level
VP & Senior Trainer
HRS Group Inc.

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