When business owners and managers address the issue of safety at their companies and organizations, they often fail to acknowledge workplace violence as a risk that is more of a threat than a liability.
Violence in the workplace has existed since the workplace itself was invented in ancient times; however, this is an issue that was not properly addressed prior to the 1986 Edmond Post Office mass shooting, in which a disgruntled mail carrier shot and killed 14 co-workers. Six fatal post office killings followed from 1991 to 2006, thereby creating the slang expression “going postal” to refer to acts of extreme workplace violence.
Understanding the Workplace Violence Phenomenon
Acts of workplace violence range from credible threats to vandalism and from physical abuse to homicide. Workplace conflict can escalate into aggression and violence due to various psychological factors such as stress, anger, frustration, retaliation, and revenge. Co-workers are not the only only perpetrators of these incidents; customers, clients, partners, and criminals can also commit acts of violence against employees.
The risk of violence in the American workplace is all too real and dangerous to ignore; each year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles hundreds of thousands of incident reports related to this phenomenon, which on average claims 700 lives each year thus far in the 21st century. For this reason, it is in the best interest of business owners and managers to establish a company safety plan that addresses workplace violence.
The Importance of a Workplace Safety Plan
American employers are bound by law to protect their staff members from the dangers of workplace violence; this much is stated by the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, a federal law implemented in 1970.
In essence, the OSH Act mandates employers to provide a safe workplace for their staff.
OSHA is the regulatory body in charge of oversight and enforcement of the OSH Act; this agency conducts inspections and investigations related to safe workplaces.
Although the General Duty Clause does not penalize employers who do not include workplace violence prevention as part of their safety plans, OSHA investigations may result in recommendations to the Secretary of Labor to issue citations in certain cases.
A few years after the expression “going postal” became mainstream, OSHA issued a series of guidelines that address workplace violence. These guidelines underscore the legal obligation of employers under the General Duty Clause, and they also included statistical information that declared certain industries such as health care, retail, personal transportation, and law enforcement as being at the highest risk of workplace violence.
Setting aside the legal obligation and potential liability of workplace violence situations, employers need to establish an adequate safety plan for the following reasons:
- Acts of workplace violence are clearly on the rise. Sociologists and occupational health experts do not have a definitive answer as to why this phenomenon has increased so much since the late 1980s; some contributing factors include population growth, a Zeitgeist that is becoming more stressful each day, socioeconomic anxiety, and negative societal trends.
- The absence of workplace violence safety plan leaves a business wide open to major liability issues. Should a violent incident end up with a civil lawsuit, the insurance companies and courts involved will surely look into the steps taken by the business owner to prevent and react to the incident. The absence of such plan could be construed as major neglect; this could in turn result in major economic loss that may even force a business to shut down.
- A workplace violence incident is like a natural disaster in the sense that it is generally unpredictable; however, this does not mean that employers should not take preventive action. Just like with a disaster recovery plan, business owners and managers should be aware of certain risks, learn to recognize warning signs and take adequate precautions to minimize damage and injury in the workplace.
- Anyone can become a victim of workplace violence. Due to the connotation of the “going postal” expression, we tend to think that violence in the workplace is mostly limited to disgruntled employees are the only potential problem. Statistics compiled by OSHA indicated that workers are more likely to be attacked by outsiders such as clients, partners, customers, and criminals. Business owners and managers often become the victims in violent situations.
- In the 21st century, OSHA has become more active in its oversight and enforcement with regard to workplace violence. Monetary fines and other penalties are being issued, and even major employers with abundant financial reserves are choosing to bite the bullet and pay a hefty fine than to contest a citation that will result in public hearings and a burdensome order from an administrative law judge.
It is worth mentioning that the OSHA definition of a workplace extends to company branch offices and the field. If a convenience store clerk is injured by an attack perpetrated by an angry customer, OSHA may issue citations to the entire chain of stores within a district if no safety plan was in place at the time of the incident.
From a compliance point of view, OSHA seems to be on track to step up inspections as well as enforcement actions. It is unclear as to whether the agency will move towards establishing hard standards and rules due to the complexity of workplace violence as a societal problem. There are also political issues at play; the gun control climate from now until 2020 is expected to favor more licensing of firearms, which means that employers should take the right precautions. This does not mean installing metal detectors in all doorways; it means that the workplace safety plan should take into account how to handle the potential of weapons being introduced in the workplace.
The manner in which a company is able to handle workplace violence is crucial to its reputation, standing in the community and ability to stay in business. A poorly handled incident can result in negative press, a higher perception of risk, increased insurance premiums, civil lawsuits, and criminal investigations.
Last but not least, employers should be mindful of the fact that business principals are often the ones targeted in acts of workplace violence; this means business owners and managers.
Five Steps to Establishing a Workplace Safety Plan
The following points of consideration can be applied to the prevention and mitigation of potentially risky situations at work.
Step 1 – Identify Risks
All potential hazards to the security of the workplace, employees, customers, and visitors should be identified.
Just like a grocery store owner would see an increased risk of shoppers slipping on wet floors, the risk factors related to potential violence should be properly identified and listed.
When it comes to identifying risks, following the OSHA guidelines is a good start; however, it is better to consult experts who can point out certain situations that business owners and managers may not immediately think about.
For example, a record label promoting a new hip-hop artist may need to think about the potential of incendiary song lyrics angering certain people and inciting violence.
Step 2 – Develop a Plan
Just like with disaster recovery plans, workplace safety plans must be written, updated, communicated, and enforced as company policy. This plan should also include a procedure manual that outlines the steps the company will take to prevent emergencies and react to them.
A plan that addresses workplace violence should be carefully designed in accordance to company culture. For example, the aforementioned hip-hop record label representing controversial artists may write a plan that calls for assigning executive protection when the artists go on promotional appearances in communities where danger may be a factor. The plan should be easy to read and follow.
Step 3 – Conduct Drills
The plan should include provisions for conducting drills at least once a year but ideally every quarter. The drills should be realistic and mindful of realities of the workplace. A solid plan should include adequate responses such as evacuating workers, helping employees with disabilities, rendering first aid, using self-defense when necessary, and others.
When a realistic drill is organized and conducted by experts, employees get a better sense of how they can deal with certain risks and threats. For example, a pizza shop that delivers to risky neighborhoods should assume that some drivers will choose to furtively carry concealed firearms even if this goes against company policy. In this situation, a realistic drill may involve responding to a workplace shooting or preventing a conflict from escalating into a firearm response situation.
Step 4 – Take Ownership
An emergency response plan should include key employees taking ownership of certain roles and actions. Just like a disaster recovery plan designates IT professionals as being responsible for backing up company data and restoring connectivity from remote locations, proper response to workplace violence should be assigned to those who can fulfill such roles.
When possible, workplace safety planning should consider the abilities of employees to prevent, react and assist. To this effect, military veterans come to mind as well as volunteer firefighters, workers with emergency medical training, martial arts practitioners, counselors, prior law enforcement personnel, and others. Ideally, well-trained security guards or executive protection experts would handle such situations.
Step 5 – Debrief
This is just as important as planning, training and responding. Workplace emergencies should be discussed openly by all employees be means of debriefing sessions. Honesty should be at the forefront of debriefing; everything that went right or wrong must be analyzed.
If an expert helped to put the workplace safety plan together, he or she may be invited to the debriefing. The idea is to make changes if needed; the plan must be fluid and should be adjusted according to shifts in workplace culture, in the community and in society.
Workplace violence is perpetrated by humans; therefore, it cannot be fully prevented. OSHA does not currently have a rule in place to force employers to create safety plans in case of workplace violence incidents; nonetheless, the liability, compliance and safety issues are too crucial to ignore.
Let Shotokan911 review your existing policy or create one specifically for your organization. We will evaluate your current needs, build a program, then train your staff on how to respond to a workplace violence encounter. Pre-plan. Train. Be ready.Follow Us on Social Media!