Sensible Steps to Prevent Workplace Violence

Safety professionals look at workplace safety through a very broad lens that encompasses dozens of issues. In recent years, the issue of workplace violence is one that has drawn more attention and energy. OSHA had turned up the volume on the issue, advising companies to include steps for dealing with violence in their safety plans.


Each time a high-profile shooting or other example of workplace violence explodes into the media, employers and many employees begin to wonder if something similar could happen on their jobsites. The simple answer is that workplace violence can happen on any worksite at any time. That means companies need to consider two aspects of the issue: how do we prevent situations from escalating into workplace violence, and how would we react if one of our employees became violent or was the intended victim of violence?


Most safety issues are pretty black-and-white. A worker shouldn’t stand beyond a certain step on a ladder. Electrical devices must be correctly grounded. If a task calls for eye protection, the worker is expected to wear it. But when it comes to preventing employees from violent acts at work, the issues are much grayer, often involving subtle aspects of employment laws and privacy regulations.


In addition, while the common assumption is that workplace violence usually involves a worker seeking revenge for being disciplined or fired, many cases actually center on something in the worker’s personal life spilling over into the workplace. A divorced couple battles over custody issues, and one spouse shows up at the other’s workplace, igniting an argument that turns physical. Fights between relatives suddenly make their way into the lobby of your building. An employee’s financial troubles lead to a suicide attempt during work hours. Your company has nothing to do with causing the situation, but you’re right in the middle of the result.


The best prevention is for supervisors to monitor employees, and to be alert to any sudden or disturbing changes in mood. For example, if an employee who is normally lively and outgoing starts becoming sullen and angry, there may be an underlying cause. It could be anything from substance abuse to financial problems to trouble at home. A supervisor who’s aware of his or her employees’ personal lives — without crossing the line into being nosy — may be able to spot problems before they develop into something bigger.


The response depends upon the situation and individuals. In some cases, the supervisor and employee may be close enough that one can ask the other how things are going. In other cases, a friendly question may actually be the trigger that provokes violence. That’s why it’s usually a good idea for a supervisor who has a concern to share it with others in leadership roles, for example with the HR department. Working together, they may be able to create an appropriate intervention, or simply may agree on the need for more monitoring and investigation.


Whatever action you take, the critical point is to treat the issue seriously. Consider threats as an example. If one worker is threatening another, or telling co-workers that he or she is going to kill a supervisor, don’t assume that the employee is all talk or laugh it off. Something needs to be done immediately. Companies should have rules in place for handling threats. They may result in the employee being written up, or they may be cause for immediate termination. Many companies are moving toward a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to threats by employees. Beyond not wanting other employees to be hurt, they want to avoid the potential liability associated with a threat that turns into a real act of violence.


One area that cannot be ignored is domestic violence. Situations involving domestic violence tend to escalate over time, and the most violent behavior often follows a partner moving out of the home or obtaining a protective order. An angry and desperate individual may not know where his or her spouse is now living, but probably knows where he or she works. Security plans at far too many companies do not consider violent intruders. (And what do you do if the potential victim is at the front desk of your facility or out making sales calls on the company’s behalf? You may not be aware of a dangerous situation until a violent act has occurred.)


Security systems and protocol can help. So can awareness training to help supervisors and employees recognize dangerous situations or signs that a fellow employee may be at risk of becoming a victim or an offender.


If your company’s emergency action plan doesn’t already address workplace violence, begin to develop policies and procedures on the issue. Just as your employees and supervisors need to know what to do when a fire breaks out or a tornado is bearing down upon your jobsite, they should know what to do if a co-worker appears with a weapon or starts making (or receiving) threats. Who responds and how? What do you handle internally and when do you call the police? Yes, this type of planning takes time and energy, but as with all other aspects of safety, it’s far better to address it before an incident than to ask yourself after the fact what you could have done to prevent a worker’s injury or death.


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