Handling Workplace Violence: What You Need to Know Before it Happens

Attorney Mark Neuberger of the law firm Foley & Lardner.
Attorney Mark Neuberger of the law firm Foley & Lardner.

By Mark J. Neuberger

“Excuse me Mr. Jones, there is a man in the lobby brandishing a gun. How would you like me to handle this?”

On December 14, 2010, a man walked into a meeting of the Bay County School Board in Panama City, Florida and began shooting.

According to news reports, just moments before the room was filled with students. Miraculously, the incident ended with only the gunman’s death.

While workplace violence usually receive widespread media attention, what makes this incident unique is that it was captured on video and now widely available via the Internet:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRgE3TXZ4oA&feature=related

Dimensions of the problem

Some 20 percent of all violent crime in the United States occurs in the workplace. An estimated 1.7 million employees are injured each year because of workplace assaults.

A recent U.S. Department of Labor survey of employers with 1,000 or more workers disclosed that more than 50 percent reported at least one incident of workplace violence during the preceding 12-month period. One out of three employees feels he or she has been bullied on the job. Statistics like these make it clear that no employer is immune from the prospect of workplace violence.

The incident in Panama City is being closely scrutinized by experts and pundits alike. Many questions have been raised, including some about the propriety of one school board member who swung her purse at the shooter, tying in vain to knock the gun out of his hand.

One can only speculate what liability the school board and its individual members might face had there been other casualties. This situation further highlights the need for advance preparation and training in order to be prepared if and when trouble strikes, because every move made — or not made — will be closely scrutinized and may lead to liability.

Know the warning signs

Employers can minimize the prospect of workplace violence if employees identify, acknowledge, and respond appropriately to behavior that may be a precursor, such as:

  • Direct or implied verbal threats about coworkers, management, customers, or family members;
  • Expression of extreme fascination with weapons;
  • Paranoid or other unusual behavior;
  • Extreme adverse reaction to coaching, discipline, or constructive criticism;
  • Manifestation of extreme depression, delusional behavior, and/or suicidal inclination;
  • History of violent behavior;
  • Romantic or other obsession with, or stalking of, an employee by a co-worker, spouse, or other non-employee.

In addition to the humanitarian concerns for preventing workplace violence, employers face potentially significant legal liability when such acts occur.

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Under Section 5(a) of the Occupational Safety And Health Act, also known as the General Duty Clause, every employer is obligated to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. In the event of workplace violence, OSHA or similar state agencies may rely on the General Duty Clause to cite an employer, claiming there was a recognized hazard of violence in the workplace and the employer did nothing to prevent or abate it.

Assess risks

Every employer should analyze its workplace and consider what threats exist, both internally and externally, that could lead to workplace violence. Any effective strategy designed to prevent workplace violence should, at a minimum, contain four main components:

  1. Management commitment and employee involvement;
  2. Work site analysis, including perimeter inspection, review of access controls and monitoring;
  3. Hazard prevention and control; and,
  4. Training.

While these components apply to the development of an effective safety and health program, they are especially pertinent to the multi-dimensional problem of workplace violence. To successfully tackle this problem, employers must obtain input from not only safety and security managers, or outside consultants if there is no in-house expertise, but also from medical, employee relations/HR, and legal staffs.

A “Threat Assessment Team” should be established to coordinate a work site analysis of any past incidents in both the employer’s business and similar businesses in the community. The team should also work to identify hazards, conditions and operational situations that could lead to violence in its particular workplace.

Any effective program will require the installation and proper maintenance of video monitoring, access control devices and the use of dedicated communication devices such as private channel radios and cellular phones, which will help in managing a crisis.

Training is essential

Employers should proactively train employees about policies pertaining to zero tolerance for workplace violence, reporting mechanisms, available resources, and the role each employee plays in keeping the workplace safe. Employers should:

  • Create and publicize a policy governing zero tolerance for workplace violence and bullying;
  • Adopt a policy which specifies behaviors prohibited in the workplace;
  • Identify each employee’s obligation to report situations of and actual or perceived instances of workplace violence;
  • In the event of an incident, consider how it will respond to employees, employee family members, customers, clients, and others who will be impacted
  • Develop techniques for dealing with potentially violent situations.

The specifics of how this is done must be within the context of each employer’s industry, facility layout, and particular risk associated with each workplace. Knowing how to respond to incidents of violence is an integral part of any effective violence prevention program. All employees should be trained on the concept of universal precautions for violence, that is, that violence should be expected but can be avoided or mitigated through proper preparation.

No employer can absolutely ensure that its workplace will never be the site of violence. However, employers that take proactive steps to reduce the risk can minimize exposure and respond quickly and appropriately when incidents occur.

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