The high price of workplace violence.
By Louis C. Klein
At one time, stress was the biggest workplace concern for employers. But the seeming rise in work-related violence has fueled much more anxiety. Violence in the workplace is a critical work-related health issue; homicides are the fourth leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the nation.
We hear about it on the news all the time. A fired employee walks into the building and shoots his former supervisor and several co-workers. A college professor, denied tenure, kills her colleagues in a rampage on a college campus. An ex-boyfriend stalks an employee at her workplace and shoots her as other employees run for cover. These are just some of the harrowing headlines over the last few years that indicate that our workplaces are unsafe.
Surprisingly during the last couple of decades, violence in the workplace has actually dropped to an all-time low. A March 2011 special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), shows that in almost every major crime category—including homicides—workplace violence has continued to decline since 1993. In fact, during this time, homicides in the workplace have decreased by 51 percent. Of those, 30 percent were committed by co-workers or those related to an employee, such as a spouse. The decline in workplace violence coincides with a downward trend of violent crime across the nation over the same time frame.
But does that really mean our workplaces are safe? Each year, approximately 2 million U.S. workers are injured as a result of workplace violence, resulting in an average of $16 million in lost wages. The cost to employers is even more staggering—nearly $121 billion annually based on the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates. From 2005 to 2009, guns were used in 80 percent of homicides committed in the workplace. In many states, carrying a concealed weapon is legal and many employees have loaded guns sitting in the glove compartments of their cars. In fact, 13 states have enacted legislation that restricts an employer’s ability to enforce a no-weapons policy on their own premises.
Although the statistics compiled by the DOJ have shown a consistent drop in workplace crime over an extended period of time, news reports of employees and co-workers committing violent acts in the workplace continue. There appears to be a disconnect between the actual decline in violence in the workplace and the perception that employee violence may be on the rise, resulting from the current recession that caused mass layoffs and lost jobs. This perception is real and is affecting the psyche of the average working person.
Do employers have a duty to prevent workplace violence? Yes, they do, and its not just morally and ethically, but also legally. Employers who fail to take this obligation seriously not only face actions from governmental agencies, but also from injured employees. Claims of negligence, negligent hiring, and negligent retention are a few of the real liabilities. Increased workers’ compensation costs and lost work time for injured employees are also side effects.
Under section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), employers have a “general duty” to provide employees with a workplace free from “recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” to employees. The prevention of workplace violence has generally been found to fall under this “general duty” clause.
Both courts of law and the occupational safety and health review commission have stated that employers have a duty under OSHA to prevent workplace violence when the hazards involved:
• create a significant risk to employees in other than a freakish or utterly implausible concurrence of circumstances;
• are known to the employer and are considered hazards in the employer’s business or industry; and
• are hazards which the employer can reasonably be expected to prevent.
Under OSHA’s “general duty” clause, an employer who becomes aware of threats or intimidation, or who has experienced some type of workplace violence already would be on notice of the potential risk of violence in the workplace and would most likely be required to institute a workplace violence program aimed at prevention.
Prevention Plans and Tools
Workplace Violence Policy. The most effective weapon an employer can use against workplace violence is prevention. Strategies should be in place before a problem arises. Employees and supervisors need to understand and know their respective roles in securing the workplace should an incident occur. Employers should strictly enforce a written workplace violence policy and prevention plan. The policy should be written in clear and unambiguous language setting forth a zero tolerance standard. The written plan may be the most important and least costly of any employer’s workplace violence prevention program.
Background Screening. Employers should “hire smart.” Insist on fully completed applications and thoroughly review and vet potential job candidates and the information provided on an application. An employer should conduct face-to-face interviews and the interviewer should have some training in interview techniques. Background checks are paramount.
Education. Training supervisors, managers, and the workforce on the prevention plan is critical to the program’s success. Employers should also educate employees about the indicators that could lead to potential workplace violence. Not only will training and education provide employees with a sense of a company’s commitment to preventing violent incidents, but it will alleviate employees’ anxiety and may help diffuse difficult situations that could lead to a violent incident. All employees should know how to recognize and report incidents of violent, threatening, or intimidating behavior, and should have immediate access to phone numbers for emergency personnel, such as local law enforcement and fire departments.
Secure Environment. Employers can create workplaces that are inviting and safe by taking simple steps. Increased lighting can be installed on business premises and parking lots, and video surveillance can be installed inside and outside buildings. Employers can hire security guards and limit public access to all or certain areas. Additionally, simple sign-in procedures for screening visitors can be implemented, as well as having an access-card entry system. Employers can also provide their employees with opportunities for stress management and wellness training.
Crisis Management. In addition to the education and training, supervisors should be schooled in basic leadership principles and management. Pair supervisors with human resources to understand company standards relating to employee performance, counseling, discipline, and other management tools. These employee intervention tools can ultimately help diffuse tense and difficult situations from becoming a potential disaster. Management must be committed and willing to seek assistance and counseling when facing work-related employee issues and problems. Too often supervisors who try to handle employee conflicts on their own unintentionally create the springboard for violent situations.
Dispute Resolution Program. Alternative dispute resolution programs can be an effective tool when a potential employee conflict has been identified. The dispute resolution program can take many different forms: the use of ombudsmen, mediations, or peer reviews. The idea is to stop the situation as soon as it comes to light. A problem that festers over time will simply not end well. Another option is the use of a threat assessment team to work with management in assessing the workplace for potential problem areas.
These are some of the steps that an employer can take to lessen the potential for violent incidents in the workplace. However, there is no substitute for being vigilant and understanding the underlying causes that can lead an employee over the precipice.
Although the statistics point to a decline in workplace violence, it remains a very real problem confronting both employers and employees. As a consequence, employers must prepare for the worst and train for the unthinkable. Those who do may be able to prevent workplace violence from occurring, or if it does, minimize its impacts.
Louis C. Klein is of counsel to Jackson, DeMarco Tidus & Peckenpaugh. He can be reached at 805-418-1907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.