Using occupational safety and health to tackle workplace violence and harassment

Anna Triponel

January 26, 2024
Our key takeaway: More than one in five people have experienced violence and harassment (V&H) in the workplace at one point in their career according to the ILO. This is likely to be exacerbated by the changing landscape of work, such as precarious employment arrangements, poor work-life balance, intensification of work, a demographic shift in the workforce and digital surveillance by employers. The ILO has identified an important opportunity to leverage occupational safety and health (OSH)—a widely accepted and well-internalised framework in most industries and companies—to address the widespread issue of V&H in the workplace. Tools that strengthen worker voice, like collective bargaining agreements, can be used to enmesh preventative measures rather than reactive approaches to V&H, embed expectations for mutual respect among workers and employers and create mechanisms that hold both individual perpetrators and entire organisations accountable to address impacts. For their part, employers can learn from their current OSH strategies to put in place policies and protocols that aim to prevent V&H, conduct risk assessments and root cause analyses, establish strong reporting mechanisms, conduct intensive training and empower workers to report incidents.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) released Preventing and Addressing Violence and Harassment in the World of Work through Occupational Safety and Health Measures (January 2024):

  • Leveraging occupational safety and health frameworks to prevent violence and harassment: The ILO reports that violence and harassment (V&H) in the workplace creates real impacts on the well-being of workers. This becomes a “vicious circle as psychosocial risks become a contributory cause of V&H, and vice versa.” Individual experiences of workers with V&H intersect with structural enablers of V&H in their organisation, presenting a significant multilayered challenge for employers and policymakers to address. But this intersection also means that occupational safety and health (OSH) can serve as a “direct entry point” to tackle V&H, since it is a well-internalised and widely accepted framework to protect workers’ well-being. According to the ILO, “[f]ocusing on the working environment and acting at the collective level, OSH is well equipped to address the root causes of V&H at work, provides structural and systematic responses to V&H, and has the capacity to mobilize actors in the world of work in the pursuit of a common goal addressing workplace V&H.” Leveraging the OSH framework also helps create a mentality around proactively preventing V&H (in much the same way as preventing workplace accidents) rather than reacting to incidents after the fact.
  • Collective bargaining agreements play a key role: Collective bargaining agreements can be used as vehicles to address the root causes of V&H, alongside legislative and policy solutions. In a review of 20 countries, the ILO found that collective bargaining agreements are increasingly being used as tools to target V&H, especially in four sectors: manufacturing; the public sector; agriculture, forestry and fishing; and transport, logistics and communications. Collective bargaining agreements in these sectors and others are including clauses that prohibit V&H broadly and sexual assault specifically, establish the importance of mutual respect in the workplace and detail accountability measures spelling out the consequences for V&H incidents in the workplace.
  • Implementing the approach in practice: Drawing on strategies that policymakers have begun rolling out on V&H, the report highlights strategies that employers can use to build up a V&H strategy modeled after their OSH approach. These include clear policies, regular risk assessments and responsive actions, root cause analysis, training and information for workers on their rights and responsibilities in the workplace, and strong reporting mechanisms. The report also notes some of the structural features in workplaces that can contribute to higher incidences of V&H, such as “higher exposure to third parties, sector-specific (confined and isolated) work arrangements, abuse of power relationships, and/ or workforce characteristics such as gender.” Certain sectors may be more prone to these risks (for example, entertainment, accommodation and food services, wholesale and retail trade, and transportation, among others) but all employers can take note of these risk factors and examine whether they may be at play in their own workplaces and value chains.  

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