ETFO Action on Violence logo, text says "Frequently Asked Questions"

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) includes protections against workplace violence. Your employer is responsible for taking “every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.” (OHSA 25(2)(h)). The frequently asked questions below address common concerns about violence in schools. If your question is not answered or you have a unique situation, speak to your health and safety representative on your Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) or contact your local ETFO office, where local leaders can answer questions or assist you if contacting the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development (“Ministry of Labour”) is necessary for enforcement.

Notification of Risk

The law requires employers/supervisors to “provide information … related to a risk of workplace violence from a person with a history of violent behaviour if:

a) the worker can be expected to encounter that person in the course of his or her work; and
b) the risk of workplace violence is likely to expose the worker to physical injury.”

This is known as “notification of risk” and is usually done by sharing a student safety plan. A truncated or shortened safety plan with just the crucial information may be shared. The information shared would include: name of the individual, photo, triggers, indications of escalation, what to do and not do to avoid injury, and how and who to call for immediate assistance (see Appendix G of Workplace Violence in School Boards: A Guide to the Law for a template).

When you arrive at the school before a daily occasional job, you should be given the opportunity to review safety plans for students you are going to work with and any students you may encounter. Ideally you would have secure access to these documents throughout the day for easy reference.

The OHSA requires your supervisor, in this case the principal, to provide information about a person with a history of violent behaviour if you are likely to encounter this person during the course of your work and if there is a risk of physical injury to you.

While you should be familiar with the safety plans for any students you will be working with directly, you also need to be aware of plans for students you may encounter in the hall, on duty in the school yard, or when working with a variety of students/classes. Any likelihood of being exposed to physical injury in these situations means you should be familiar with the safety plan.

If there are plans for many students throughout a school, this can be an overwhelming amount of information. Focus on reviewing the pictures of the students so you can recognize them, the situations that might be triggers so you can avoid escalating behaviours, and how to summon immediate assistance to get support from staff who know them best.

The principal is responsible for providing the relevant information. If you are just handed a binder of plans without sufficient time to review them or not given any information at all, ask for more information or to speak to the principal. You may want to know:

• Are there individuals I may encounter who could put me at risk of physical injury?
• Which of these students will I be working with?
• How will I recognize them (there should be pictures on the plans)?
• Are there truncated (shorter) safety plans I can review that contain just the crucial information, given there is limited time?
• Is there a copy of the plan that I can refer to throughout the day?
• Do I need any particular training to be part of the team using these plans? If I don’t have that training, how will that be addressed?
• In the event of a violent incident, how can I summon immediate assistance?
• Is everyone with a responsibility in these plans here today, or is there an alternate person with the appropriate training and knowledge?
• If I will not be able to review this material in time to begin my assigned work, how would you like me to proceed?

You should be mindful of your responsibility to maintain privacy regarding the personal information of students. However, discussing students and their needs is a part of your job. This may include information about student strengths and needs, concerns educators may have, and behaviour colleagues should be aware of when working with a student.

Additionally, when someone has experienced workplace violence, there is nothing that prevents them from discussing their experience with colleagues. The impact of these incidents is both physical and psychological and members are encouraged to get the support that they need. These discussions are important, and they can happen without sharing personal information about a student.

The principal also has a responsibility to share information about students with a history of violence. If you believe that important information hasn’t been shared with a colleague, you could suggest they speak to the principal or you could contact the principal to let them know your colleague hasn’t been made aware of important information. If work is proceeding and you believe there is an immediate safety concern, contact your local ETFO office.

Sometimes continuing with your job can create an unsafe situation. Remember that the OHSA gives workers the right to refuse unsafe work that places themselves or another worker at risk.

If a student is being transferred to your school for school safety reasons, the board is required by PPM 145 to coordinate a “transfer meeting.” This must occur before the student begins at their new school and the OSR must have been received before the meeting can take place.

A student may be transferring for other reasons, but any safety-related information in the OSR still must be shared. Ideally, the OSR would be on site before the student begins attending, or at minimum, their latest safety plan should be shared so it can be updated for the new school.

Principals are responsible for reassessing the risk of workplace violence when there is a change in the workplace, such as incoming students. If a student arrives without an OSR or their OSR is delayed, ask your principal if the student has a history of violent behaviour. They should do their best to get an answer to that question, which may involve contacting previous schools.

There will be situations when students arrive without OSRs or with incomplete information and there is no way of getting that information. As with all students, there will be a period of time of getting to know them. Any concerning observations should be shared in writing and incidents should be reported so that the student’s needs can be met and workers can be protected.

The Ministry of Education’s guidelines for OSRs outline how and when information should be removed. Material can only be removed if it is “no longer conducive to the improvement of the instruction of the student.”

Sometimes principals or parents want to remove information from the OSR in an attempt to give a student a “fresh start.” However, the employer has a legal obligation to inform workers of any history of violent behaviour that could expose the worker to risk of physical injury.

It is not helpful to students if their new school isn’t prepared to meet their needs, and transitions between schools can be challenging for students, causing problematic behaviours to re-emerge. Regardless of what information is in the OSR, if a student comes from within your school board, then your employer is aware of the history of violence and has a legal obligation to inform you.

Information cannot be withheld at the expense of your safety. The OHSA states that when there is a conflict between the OHSA and other laws, the OHSA prevails.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario’s advice to educators makes clear that personal information can be disclosed when it is required to deliver educational services and when disclosure is required by law. This includes the requirement of the OHSA that information about an individual with a history of violent behaviour be shared with workers who are likely to encounter the individual and be at risk of physical injury.

Even if a violent action occurs outside of the school environment, the Youth Criminal Justice Act does not prevent a principal from telling staff about charges if there is potential that staff could be at risk.

After a significant incident, the principal should conduct a reassessment of the risk of violence.

Risk reassessments must be shared with the JHSC, so you can ask your worker health and safety representative if this was done, and what actions are being taken to protect workers from violence.

The risk reassessment may result in an updated safety plan or notification of risk, which must be shared with affected workers. Sometimes the remedy is to ensure the existing safety plan is being followed. For example, support needs to be available when immediate assistance is summoned and the principal needs to ensure replacement staff are aware of the safety plan.

If you feel that your work is not safe following a serious incident, speak to your principal or your health and safety representative, and make sure you are aware of your right to refuse unsafe work.

Risk Assessment/Reassessments

The law requires employers/supervisors to assess the risk of violence in the workplace and to advise the JHSC of the results of the assessment. It’s important to note that a risk assessment is not an assessment of an individual or a student, but the information in the risk assessment may lead to protections such as a safety plan being put in place.

A risk assessment should look at the physical aspects of the workplace (e.g., is the parking lot well lit?), the kind of work being done (e.g., with whom do the workers interact?), and the conditions of work (e.g., are workers alone or in remote locations?).

The Ministry of Labour recommends that there should be a risk assessment at least annually in schools, with input from workers. In addition, the risk of violence should be reassessed when there are concerns or changes in the school, such as an increase in violent incidents, changes in the physical environment or the student population, or changes to programming or scheduling.

An example of a risk reassessment checklist can be found at

Risk assessments/reassessments must be shared with the JHSC, so first check with your worker health and safety representative to find out if this has been done and what actions are being taken to protect workers from violence.

A risk reassessment may result in an updated safety plan or notification of risk, which must be shared with affected workers. Sometimes the remedy is to ensure the existing safety plan is being followed.

The principal is responsible for reassessing the risk of violence as often as necessary to ensure that workers are protected from violence. This includes when there is a change to the amount/severity of violence, the physical environment of the workplace, the student population, or curriculum/scheduling. The requirements to assess and reassess risk are clear in the OHSA, so an employer failing to do so is not following the law and a complaint could be made to the Ministry of Labour.

If you feel your work is not safe following a serious incident, speak to your principal or your health and safety representative and make sure you understand your right to refuse unsafe work.

Safety Plans

There are different templates and names for behaviour and safety plans around the province, and they may even be included in the same document. Regardless of what is done in your board, some things are true everywhere:

A behaviour plan is about teaching the student. This may include replacing old behaviours with new behaviours, or the development of skills such as self-regulation. This could be part of an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a separate behaviour plan of some kind, depending on the processes of the board. It may include consultations with specialists in behaviour or special education.

A student safety plan is intended to keep the student, others around them, and workers in the school safe. The Ministry of Labour has given guidance on the minimum of what should be included in a safety plan in Workplace Violence in School Boards: A Guide to the Law:

  • student name and photograph
  • description of the behaviour/safety concerns
  • triggers or antecedents
  • prevention and intervention strategies
  • communication procedures to ensure all workers are aware of the risk and of the plan
  • emergency communication procedures to summon immediate assistance when needed

The Ministry of Education does not require that a student have an IEP, an identification, a behaviour plan, or that they be receiving special education services in order to have a safety plan. Your board may have different policies, but a safety plan should not be delayed in order to put other things, like a behaviour plan, in place. Where there is a risk of violence and injury, a plan to keep everyone safe must be in place.

Student safety plans are developed when there is behaviour that could put the student, other students, or workers at risk. Families can be important partners in helping students and those around them stay safe while the student requiring the safety plan is learning the skills they need to regulate their behaviour. However, families shouldn’t be able to decline measures that protect others from the risk of injury due to violence.

The OHSA requires employers to take “every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker,” but it doesn’t require that safety plans be developed. The OHSA does require that employers have a policy about workplace violence and a program to implement that policy. The workplace violence policy/program for your school board should identify that safety plans are to be developed when there is a history or risk of violence.

If the principal determines that a safety plan will not be developed, this decision does not negate their obligation to ensure safety measures are in place, and to follow the OHSA, such as notifying workers of the risk of violence and ensuring there is a means of summoning immediate assistance.

If the school board is not taking every precaution reasonable and is not following their own policy/program, then they are not following the OHSA, nor are they meeting their obligations as an employer. Work with your health and safety representative or your local ETFO office to help raise this concern.

There are families who, for good reason, are cautious in their interactions with schools. A growing body of data demonstrates a history of systemic inequity and unfair treatment of students from marginalized groups. If this might be the case your principal must determine if there are any biases that are influencing the decisions about the student. It’s important to ensure that the family’s concerns are respected and addressed while also providing support for the student and safety protections for everyone.

Safety plans are designed to avoid violence and to respond when it occurs. It may be a part of a crisis response for educators to carry out specific roles, such as removing other students from the area or helping de-escalate the behaviour of the struggling student.
But that should only be in response to the immediate crisis, not all the time. Bring your concerns to the attention of your principal, and your local ETFO office.

School boards and principals are responsible for the safety of students and school board employees, so the responsibility for safety plans belongs to the principal of the school.

In addition to the principal, the creation of the plan should include all workers who have direct and routine involvement with the student, and parents/guardians should be consulted Professionals and/or agencies outside of the school who are working with the student or family may also be consulted.

The work of writing safety plans in elementary schools is most often assigned to a teacher (e.g., special education support, teacher of specialized class, itinerant teacher). But the responsibility for ensuring the safety plan is created, for approving and signing the safety plan, for ensuring that the safety plan is carried out, for seeing that the appropriate training and equipment are in place, and for seeing that the safety plan is updated when necessary all belong to the principal.

Safety plans should include contingencies for the absence of any staff included in the plan. If you are working with a student whose safety plan is understaffed, bring it to the immediate attention of the principal and ask for their direction. If they don’t ensure the safety plan can be carried out or that it is modified in a way that keeps everyone safe, contact your health and safety representative and your local ETFO office. If you believe your work is likely to endanger you because the safety plan cannot be carried out, remember that you have the right to refuse unsafe work.

Yes, you and everyone in the school should be safe from psychological harm.

The OHSA gives a very specific definition of workplace violence (physical force, attempted physical force, or the threat of physical force), which doesn’t encompass all types of harm. Any incident meeting the definition of violence must be reported as a violent incident. Harassment, bigoted and demeaning language, inappropriate sexual behaviour and comments – none of these meet the OHSA’s definition of violence, but they are all very harmful.

Psychological harm that doesn’t fall into the OHSA’s narrow definition of violence should still be reported:

  • If it is an incident that harmed or could have harmed you, report the incident or report a health and safety concern in writing.
  • If it meets the threshold of a Safe Schools Incident (any activity for which a student may be suspended under board policy), then submit a Safe Schools Incident Report.
  • If you miss time from work, require workplace accommodations, or seek medical attention because of the impact of chronic or traumatic mental stress at work, submit a workplace injury report and make a WSIB claim.
  • If it meets the definition of harassment in the OHSA, consider a harassment complaint. This is probably dependent on the needs and abilities of the student – talk to your local ETFO office for guidance.

Safety plans aren’t restricted to violence. If a student’s behaviour puts others in the school at risk of harm, a safety plan should be developed.

You can also inform your principal when students have been harmed and remind them of their responsibility under section 300.3 of the Education Act to inform the parent/guardian of a student who they believe has been harmed by a serious student incident.

School boards must develop a local police/school board protocol based on the provincial model. The protocol must have an emergency and crisis response plan that includes the use of specific terminology for:

  • Lockdown: used for a major incident or threat within the school. Staff gather students and stay with them in secure/locked areas, away from windows and doors, with lights off, in silence.
  • Hold and secure: used when there is a situation outside of the school that is unrelated to the school. The school continues to function with exterior doors locked.
  • Shelter in place: used when there is an environmental or weather-related emergency where it is necessary to keep all occupants within the school to protect them.

The protocol doesn’t address a situation where there is an incident or threat within the school that necessitates that movement around the school be limited (e.g., by locking classroom doors), but classes can otherwise function. Many schools or school boards have filled this gap with a practice like the “clear halls” described.

It’s important that there be a way of communicating situations like these with understood terminology, and that the terminology is consistent across the board. Staff, like occasional teachers or temporary education workers, who work in more than one school must be aware of the terminology used. ETFO is advocating for common language across the province to be included in the provincial model for a local police/school board protocol.

The OHSA requires employers to take “every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of the worker.”

Many situations require layers of protection. PPE protects the worker when violence happens but does not do anything to prevent violence. If PPE is the only protection that has been provided to you, discuss possible additional protections with your supervisor:

  • a safety plan (if workers need PPE, then a safety plan should always be in place)
  • training that helps all involved workers de-escalate situations that might lead to violence
  • supports and resources that help meet the student’s needs
  • a method of summoning immediate assistance when a situation may become violent

If PPE is provided, the employer should ensure that it is appropriate for the intended purpose (e.g., not sports equipment) and must also provide training on its use and care. PPE must fit properly to be effective, even if that means the employer must make a range of PPE available.

There is not usually one simple thing that will protect you from violence. But layers of protection, each of which can help prevent and respond to violent incidents, will be more effective in protecting workers from injury.

ETFO has consistently discouraged members from physically intervening with students (see PRS Bulletin 98 for more information). It can create health and safety risks, as well as lead to professional concerns.

If you have been instructed not to engage in physical interventions under any circumstances with a student who may become violent or place themselves at risk, then there must be a safety plan in place that outlines the ways in which incidents can be prevented, and when necessary, what interventions can keep everyone safe during a violent incident.

If there is not such a plan in place then the school board is not fulfilling their responsibility to take every reasonable precaution to protect you, nor or are they fulfilling their responsibility for student safety. Speak to your health and safety representative or your local ETFO office.

If the current safety plan is not effectively keeping students and workers safe, make sure your principal knows. A reassessment of risk and an update to the safety plan may be necessary.

Your employer can direct you to attend professional development during paid time, but many of these programs have components that raise concerns. For more information and guidance for ETFO members regarding physical intervention training, see PRS Bulletin 98.

If you are unable to participate in physical intervention or the training and/or you need medical accommodations, contact your local office or Professional Relations Services.

Work Refusals

For basic work refusal information (not specific to violence), please refer to the Workers’ Rights resources.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) states that, “Despite anything in any general or special Act, the provisions of this Act and the regulations prevail.” Although administrators and school boards often cite a student’s right to an education in response to workers with safety concerns, these two things are not mutually exclusive. A student can receive their education and workers can be safe when the appropriate supports and protections are in place.

School boards may be concerned about human rights complaints from parents, but health and safety for staff and students must be a priority. It may be necessary for students to be excluded temporarily while a plan is put in place to support them and the safety of others.

Yes. If the psychosocial hazards have reached the threshold where you believe your work is likely to endanger you then you may choose to engage in a work refusal. You may hear or be told that this is not the case; however, the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development (Ministry of Labour) has identified addressing work-related mental health as a part of its strategy. While Ministry of Labour inspectors have not received specific direction on how psychosocial hazards should be addressed, it is important that these issues be raised. ETFO members are setting important precedents when they highlight psychosocial hazards leading to psychological injury or illness.

Whether or not you take the approach of engaging in a work refusal depends on the hazard and how you believe it might endanger you.

For example, if you are repeatedly threatened when you are at work (remember that threats of physical force that could cause injury are considered violence under the OHSA) and it is impacting your psychological well-being (e.g., sleeplessness, symptoms of anxiety), that is a hazard that should be addressed by your employer. Ensure that you are reporting any incidents of violence or harassment and any resulting injuries/illness, including psychological injuries/illness. If your employer does not take steps to address the concerns you are being harmed, and you have reason to believe the harm will continue, that means your work is likely to endanger you psychologically.

If you are experiencing the psychological impact of violence, you should seek support/care from your health care provider. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) may provide benefits and services for your workplace mental stress injury.

If there is a situation in your workplace that is causing you harm but might not be considered a hazard by everyone, you should consult with your ETFO local office. For example, if you are uniquely impacted by loud and sudden noises and a student is struggling with their behaviour and frequently has loud outbursts, but there is no physical force against anyone (or attempts/threats of physical force), that might be better addressed by working with your union, your health care provider, and your employer to ensure that you are accommodated in such a way that you are safe.

If your assigned work involves working in a situation that you believe is likely to endanger you, then you are refusing your assigned work. Once you have initiated that action and you have a health and safety representative there supporting you, your employer will engage in the first stage of the process. This will include looking for a solution to the unsafe situation.

It is only in rare circumstances that the solution will be to move the student to another setting or placement. If you believe this solution makes your work safe, that would signal the end of the work refusal and a return to work.

It’s important to ensure, however, that the solution is not a temporary measure and the situation won’t return to the same unsafe state. If a student is temporarily excluded or moved, or is temporarily provided with support, part of the first stage discussion should be about what will happen during that temporary period of time that will make your work safe when the student returns.

No. This does not mean that your concerns are not valid, just that your students are not workers and are not protected by the OHSA. It is still important that you express your concerns to your administrator, who has the ultimate responsibility for the students’ safety. It’s also important to remember that under the Education Act and PPM 145, the administrator has the responsibility to “notify the parents of students who have been harmed as the result of a serious student incident.”

Students and parents who express safety concerns to you can also be directed to take their concerns to the principal, superintendents, and trustees.

You may experience a psychological impact from witnessing violence, even if it is not directed at you. If that is the case, you should seek support/care from your health care provider. The WSIB may provide benefits and services for your workplace mental stress injury.

Occasional/temporary members can make the decision to not accept a job in a situation where they believe they would be unsafe.

However, if you accept a job despite being aware of safety concerns and you arrive at the workplace to discover that appropriate protections to keep you safe are not in place, you have the right to refuse unsafe work, even as a daily worker. If you are a teacher, remember that your right is limited – inform the administrator immediately of your intent and they should arrange as soon as possible for the work to be covered, or for your concerns to be addressed. For example, if there is a safety plan in place that you do not have the training to follow, the principal should adjust the plan and the workers involved to ensure that it can be carried out by workers who are trained to do so. Or, if there is a student in the class with a history of violent behaviour and you discover there is no safety plan in place, the administration may arrange for coverage of the class or different supports for the student while the work refusal is discussed.

Sometimes, you may hear about safety concerns at a school but you aren’t aware of the specifics of the situation. If you decide to accept a job at such a school, you cannot then refuse work simply based on a school’s “reputation.” It is important that you be able to articulate your specific concerns and how they cause you to believe that your work is likely to endanger you.

If you believe that you are at risk of injury in your work, then a work refusal may be appropriate. Even if you don’t like the idea and wish that the necessary resources were available, sometimes it takes a worker who refuses to continually subject themselves to violence to prompt change.

Of course, the root of the issue of violence in schools is the unmet needs of students. Advocating for supports to meet the needs of all students, both in the school and in the larger community, will be a necessary part of the solution.

Both as a teacher and as a citizen, you can advocate for change:

  • Document your concerns and send them, in writing, to your administrator.
  • Report all incidents of workplace violence and report both physical and mental stress injuries to WSIB if applicable (for more information on reporting, visit
  • Consult your health and safety representative and local ETFO leaders
  • Exercise your health and safety rights, including (when appropriate) the right to refuse unsafe work
  • Speak to your elected officials, especially school board trustees and members of provincial parliament
  • Visit for more information on advocating for improvements to Ontario’s elementary public school system

The process to determine a student’s needs and access appropriate supports or placement can be lengthy, but that does not mean you have to work in an unsafe environment while waiting. If your work is likely to endanger you or another worker, your employer could take other steps. Review the Violence Work Refusal Checklist and determine if you think you should refuse unsafe work.