SAFETY SOLUTIONS: Workplace Violence
We have all seen these horrible news stories, airline workers being attacked by passengers, workers being attacked by other or ex-employees, healthcare workers being attacked by patients and so the list goes on and on.
The latest on workplace violence statistics for 2021 is that despite the COVID-19 pandemic many federal agencies have been able to publish figures relating to fatal and non-fatal injuries at work; and from these figures it has been possible for health and safety experts to extract statistics relating to workplace violence.
Comparing these statistics with other sources of data, it is clear many businesses continue to under-report non-fatal injuries and illnesses at work. This under-reporting creates a misleading picture of violence in the workplace and - due to not acknowledging the issue - results in businesses failing to adequately protect employees.
The discrepancy between reported workplace violence and unreported workplace violence is expected to worsen when statistics for 2020 are produced. Despite many employees working remotely in the relative safety of their homes, those who have continued to work on-site during the pandemic have faced increasing levels of violence.
According to the OSHA website, public-facing employees have been screamed at, spat on, and assaulted for trying to enforce mask-wearing rules and, in November, a Family Dollar store security guard had been shot and killed for trying to enforce mask-wearing rules. It is doubtful many of the non-fatal incidents will appear in official workplace violence statistics.
Office workers have also been subject to COVID-19-related workplace violence. According to HR Daily Advisor, the stress of the pandemic has raised stressed levels and lowered thresholds for confrontation over previously non-existent issues such as social distancing and hand hygiene. Again, we´ll likely never know how many confrontations escalated into workplace violence.
Our workplace is an important part of our lives. Many people spend from 35 to 65 percent of their waking hours at work. We dedicate a great amount of time and energy to our job. Unfortunately, workplace violence is also becoming a common occurrence. Many people identify themselves by their careers while others identify all their problems with their work environment.
Most people think of violence as a physical assault. However, workplace violence is a much broader problem. It is any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment. Workplace violence includes:
- Threatening behavior – such as shaking fists, destroying property or throwing objects.
- Physical attacks – hitting, shoving, pushing or kicking.
- Verbal or written threats – any expression of an intent to inflict harm against a colleague or the workplace itself.
- Verbal abuse – swearing, insults or condescending language.
While many people do not consider verbal abuse a symptom of workplace violence, gone unchecked, the behavior may escalate.
Workplace violence is not limited to incidents that occur within a traditional workplace. Work-related violence can occur at off-site business-related events, at social events related to work or away from work but resulting from work relationships.
What work-related factors increase the risk of violence?
Certain factors and interactions can put people at increased risk from workplace violence. Including: working with the public; handling money or valuables; working during organizational change (e.g. strikes, downsizing); pay days; performance appraisals; promotions or employee terminations.
How do you know if your workplace is at risk?
Potentially, all work environments are at risk; wherever people work together there is a potential for inappropriate behavior. Every company should have a plan set to deter and/or deal with threatening behavior. If you don’t believe it can happen at your company, you should read some of the statements from employees who have been victimized: they too, thought it would never really happen to them.
While there are some risk factors which increase the chance of violence from outsiders, most employers in those fields (and their insurers) are aware of the potential for danger and take measures to minimize the risk. However, many employers who had considered themselves non-risks have been victims of workplace violence.
What can you do to prevent violence in your workplace?
The most important component of any workplace violence prevention program is management commitment communicated in a written policy. An effective workplace violence prevention program must have financial support, employees trained to recognize and report threats or warning signs of potential violence, a staff trained for quick intervention and open communication across all lines. You need to create systems that can detect people who are breaking down under stress and deal with them in a way that is fair, legal and compassionate. But your responsibility is also to co-workers to minimize their risk. The program must:
- Be developed by management and employee representatives (if you are a union shop, make sure your plan is in line with your bargaining agreement).
- Apply to management, employees, clients, independent contractors and anyone who has a relationship with your company. Although it is difficult to manage outsiders, you must develop systems to minimize risk. Define what you mean by workplace violence in precise, concrete language.
- Provide clear examples of unacceptable behavior and working conditions. Be careful not to limit your policy to these examples: state that any behavior which causes others to feel threatened or intimidated is unacceptable.
- Precisely state the consequences of making threats or committing violent acts, including reprimand, suspension and/or termination of employment. Be very clear and concise in this area, and do not waver.
- Setting and adhering to boundaries of acceptable behavior is a must. If you allow employees to breach the boundaries, you may put your company at risk legally.
- Require reporting of all incidents of violence including threats of violence.
- Outline the process by which employees can report incidents and to whom. (Again, work with your union rep on this point, anonymous reports may violate your contractual agreement.)
- Develop procedures for investigating and resolving complaints.
- Offer a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to allow employees with personal problems to seek help. You may require employees to utilize their services or their own medical plan as a condition of employment in the event of problems, again, always check with your union.
Having and adhering to a written policy on workplace violence will encourage employees to report incidents and will show that management is committed to dealing with incidents involving violence, harassment and other unacceptable behavior.
Preventive measures generally fall into three categories, workplace design, administrative practices and work practices.
Workplace design considers factors such as workplace layout, use of signs, locks or physical barriers, lighting and electronic surveillance. Building security is one instance where workplace design issues are very important. For example, you should consider:
- Positioning the reception area or sales or service counter so that it is visible to fellow employees or members of the public passing by.
- Minimizing the number of entrances to your workplace.
- Using coded cards or keys to control access to the building or certain areas within the building.
- Using adequate exterior lighting around the workplace and near entrances.
- Strategically placing fences to control access to the workplace.
Administrative practices are decisions you make about how you do business. For example, certain administrative practices can reduce the risks involved in handling cash. You should consider:
- Keeping cash register funds to a minimum.
- Using electronic payment systems to reduce the amount of cash available.
- In non-cash handling situations, such as employee terminations:
- Have more than one management representative present at the separation.
- Always conduct terminations privately and at the end of the day/shift, when less co-workers are around. This will minimize the employee’s embarrassment at being let go (and hopefully their desire for vengeance) and reduce the amount of potential victims available if they do lose control.
- Do not schedule meetings in the morning for 5:00 p.m. Employees who know that’s when you typically terminate people will spend the day worrying, working themselves up and be ready to blow when the meeting comes. Approach the employee at the end of their shift/ day and ask them to come to the office for a discussion.
- Be fair and swift when you terminate employees. If the decision has already been made, and there is no room to negotiate, tell the employee your reasons, let them know no discussion is going to change the decision and send them off premises as quickly as possible with whatever insurance and/or unemployment paperwork they will require (prepared in advance of the meeting). Do not let them beg for their jobs back when you know you aren’t going to let them, this will only inflame an already emotional situation.
People, who work away from a traditional office setting, for example service technicians, can adopt many different work practices that will reduce their risk. For example:
- Prepare a daily work plan, so that you and others know where and when you are expected somewhere.
- Identify a designated contact at the office and a back-up.
- Check the credentials of clients.
- Use the “buddy system”, especially when you feel your personal safety may be threatened.
- DO NOT enter any situation or location where you feel threatened or unsafe.
Is there specific workplace violence prevention legislation?
The “General Duty Clause” of the Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to “furnish a work environment that is safe from recognized hazards…” This has been interpreted to include workplace violence. While you may think that recognized hazards don’t include workplace violence, the employee who consistently makes threats and then commits an act of violence may be considered a recognized hazard, since you were aware of the threats. Do not consider any employee “all talk.” Many experts say that threatening language (even if not directed at a specific person i.e., “someone ought to burn this place down”) is a means to explore boundaries and can quickly escalate if gone unchecked.
Finally, without training one does not have a full workplace violence prevention program. If the policy and procedures are the foundation, then training is the energy that runs the program.
The ability to identify those individuals and circumstances that have a high correlation to violence comes only through training. The tragedy of workplace violence occurs when those warning signs go unrecognized.
Managers, supervisors, and employees can be trained to identify and report the warning signs that indicate a potential for violence. Training can also be used to communicate to employees the consequences of making threats or acting violently.
My company Podojil & Associates, Inc. has joined forces with the International Association of safety Health Environmental Professionals (IASHEP) www.iashep and IASHEP offers it members many courses in safety, health and the environment. Workplace Violence Prevention is one course that IASHEP presents to their members and for $100.00 per year their members are allowed to take this course for free.
Should you want more information on IASHEP, please contact me through the magazine. As always, I am here to help. I am planning on attending the AWSF conference in Las Vegas and I will make it a point to stop in and say hello to our advertisers and answer any questions that you may have.
Until then, stay safe.
For more information, click on the author biography at the top of the page.