No workplace is completely safe! However, understanding the scope of the problem and implementing proper policies can significantly reduce the risk to your employees, yourself, and your business.
We have all seen the headlines:
- “Six Die in Workplace Shooting in Mississippi”
- “Seven Killed in Boston Area Office Shooting”
- “Gunman Kills 1, Wounds 3 in Seattle Shipyard Shooting”
- “Gunman Kills 7 in Honolulu Office”
- “Gunman in Atlanta Rampage Kills Himself; 12 Dead, 12 Injured”
What Is Workplace Violence?
Workplace violence can be any act of physical violence, threats of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening, disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite. A number of different actions in the work environment can trigger or cause workplace violence. It may even be the result of nonwork-related situations such as domestic violence or “road rage.” Workplace violence can be inflicted by an abusive employee, a manager, supervisor, co-worker, customer, family member, or even a stranger. Whatever the cause or whoever the perpetrator, workplace violence is not to be accepted or tolerated.
Who Is Vulnerable?
Some 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year. Workplace violence can strike anywhere, and no one is immune. Some workers, however, are at increased risk. Among them are workers who exchange money with the public; deliver passengers, goods, or services; or work alone or in small groups, during late night or early morning hours, in high-crime areas, or in community settings and homes where they have extensive contact with the public. This group includes healthcare and social service workers such as visiting nurses, psychiatric evaluators, and probation officers; community workers such as gas and water utility employees, phone and cable TV installers, and letter carriers; retail workers; and taxi drivers.
What Can Employers Do to Help Protect Their Employees?
The best protection employers can offer is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence against or by their employees. The employer should establish a workplace violence prevention program or incorporate the information into an existing accident prevention program, employee handbook, or manual of standard operating procedures. It is critical to ensure that all employees know the policy and understand that all claims of workplace violence will be investigated and remedied promptly.
Employers can offer additional protections such as the following:
- Provide safety education for employees so they know what conduct is not acceptable, what to do if they witness or are subjected to workplace violence, and how to protect themselves.
- Secure the workplace. Where appropriate to the business, install video surveillance, extra lighting, and alarm systems and minimize access by outsiders through identification badges, electronic keys, and guards.
- Provide drop safes to limit the amount of cash on hand. Keep a minimal amount of cash in registers during evenings and late-night hours.
- Equip field staff with cellular phones and hand-held alarms or noise devices, and require them to prepare a daily work plan and keep a contact person informed of their location throughout the day. Keep employer-provided vehicles properly maintained.
- Instruct employees not to enter any location where they feel unsafe. Introduce a “buddy system” or provide an escort service or police assistance in potentially dangerous situations or at night.
- Develop policies and procedures covering visits by home healthcare providers. Address the conduct of home visits, the presence of others in the home during visits, and the worker’s right to refuse to provide services in a clearly hazardous situation.
Steps to Protect Employer and Employees
Employers should establish effective pre-employment screening to protect themselves and their employees. They should conduct background checks, call references, and drug test if appropriate. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”), an employer may be liable for employee violence if he “knows, or should have known, of certain characteristics of an individual and hires the person or retains him or her in employment anyway.” Therefore, the employer has a duty to properly screen job applicants.
Identifying Potentially Violent Situations
If you ever have concerns about a situation which may turn violent, alert your supervisor immediately and follow the specific reporting procedures provided by your employee handbook. It is better to err on the side of safety than to risk having a situation escalate.
Following are warning indicators of potential workplace violence:
- Intimidating, harassing, bullying, belligerent, or other inappropriate and aggressive behavior.
- Numerous conflicts with customers, co-workers, or supervisors.
- Bringing a weapon to the workplace (unless necessary for the job), making inappropriate references to guns, or making idle threats about using a weapon to harm someone.
- Statements showing fascination with incidents of workplace violence, statements indicating approval of the use of violence to resolve a problem, or statements indicating identification with perpetrators of workplace homicides.
- Statements indicating desperation (over family, financial, and other personal problems) to the point of contemplating suicide.
- Direct or veiled threats of harm.
- Substance abuse.
- Extreme changes in normal behaviors. Once you have noticed a subordinate, co-worker, or customer showing any signs of the above indicators, you should take the following steps:
- If you are a co-worker, you should notify the employee’s supervisor immediately of your observations.
- If it is a customer, notify your supervisor immediately.
- If it is your subordinate, then you should evaluate the situation by taking into consideration what may be causing the employee’s problems.
- If it is your supervisor, notify that person’s manager.
It is very important to respond appropriately, i.e., not to overreact but also not to ignore a situation. Sometimes that may be difficult to determine. Managers should discuss the situation with expert resource staff to get help in determining how best to handle the situation.
Plans and Procedures for Recovering from a Workplace Violence Emergency
This is a very crucial step in an agency’s program. Although the hope is that violence will not occur, if it does, agencies must be prepared to deal with the situation, to help in the healing process, and to get the workforce back to productivity. Following a violent incident, employees experience three stages of “crisis reactions” to varying degrees: Stage One. In this stage, the employee experiences emotional reactions characterized by shock, disbelief, denial, or numbness. Physically, the employee experiences shock or a fight-or-flight survival reaction in which the heart rate increases, perceptual senses become heightened or distorted, and adrenaline levels increase to meet a real or perceived threat.
Stage Two. This is the “impact” stage where the employee may feel a variety of intense emotions, including anger, rage, fear, terror, grief, sorrow, confusion, helplessness, guilt, depression, or withdrawal. This stage may last a few days, a few weeks, or a few months.
Stage Three. This is the “reconciliation stage” in which the employee tries to make sense out of the event, understand its impact, and through trial and error, reach closure of the event so it does not interfere with his or her ability to function and grow. This stage may be a long-term process.
While it is difficult to predict how an incident will affect a given individual, several factors influence the intensity of trauma. These factors include the duration of the event, the amount of terror or horror the victim experienced, the sense of personal control (or lack thereof) the employee had during the incident, and the amount of injury or loss the victim experienced (i.e., loss of property, self-esteem, physical well-being, etc.). Other variables include the person’s previous victimization experiences, recent losses such as the death of a family member, and other intense stresses.
Workplace violence is an ongoing problem with an estimated 2 million incidents per year. Every business is at risk. Implementing proper procedures and training can reduce your risk of having an incident and greatly reduce the impact if an incident occurs.