Workplace violence

Workplace violence prevention

Experts say dialogue, drills are essential to protecting workers

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Key points

  • Safety pros don’t have to implement the program on their own. Experts recommend seeking the advice of consultants or law-enforcement officials, and attending seminars on the topic.
  • By training workers about some of the common red flags preceding workplace violence, everyone in the organization will be able to look out for one another.
  • Implement active shooter drills in which workers are advised to run, hide or fight depending on the circumstance.

Additional resource

Too many times, Marilyn Knight has heard the same refrain after a violent workplace incident.

“Nothing could have been done.”

“We can only hope something like that never happens here.”

This mindset frustrates Knight, who has worked with organizations worldwide to develop violence prevention and crisis management programs. Something can be done, she says. Employers can take steps to reduce the risk of violence and educate workers.

“Quite frankly, ‘hope’ is not a strategy,” said Knight, who is president and CEO of the Novi, MI-based Incident Management Team. “There are indeed warning signs. There are things you can do. There are ways to mitigate threats, and you can take proactive steps so you’re not just sitting there at the mercy of something and hoping that somebody doesn’t do this.”

Workplace violence is an issue that safety professionals need to acknowledge and address. Although some organizations such as health care facilities and late-night retail establishments face increased risks for violence, the potential for a violent incident exists across organizations of all sizes, in all industries and in all geographic locations.

The outcome can be deadly. In 2014, workplace homicides claimed the lives of 403 people in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Although that figure is considerably lower than the 677 workplace homicides that occurred in 2000, it still represents 8.6 percent of 4,679 on-the-job fatalities in 2014. Meanwhile, OSHA has stated that almost 2 million people report workplace violence every year, and many more cases likely go unreported.

In response, federal and state agencies have stepped up their efforts to help organizations implement and maintain effective workplace violence prevention programs. Grant funding is available for some workplace violence prevention training programs. Although federal OSHA and state agencies don’t have specific regulatory requirements on workplace violence, the General Duty Clause allows agencies to cite organizations that neglect the issue.

“It’s important for organizations to make workplace violence prevention a priority because workers are a company’s most important asset, and their safety is paramount,” Michigan OSHA Director Martha Yoder said. “Workplace violence is a recognized hazard that can cause serious physical harm or death to employees, and it’s an employer’s duty to provide employees with a work environment that is free from known and recognized hazards.”

Start the conversation

Any safety professional who wants to speak about preventing workplace violence faces a difficult task. How can you speak frankly without scaring workers? How can you increase awareness about the topic without fostering anxiety or animosity?

Knight said the answer is simple: Emphasize that the program is about keeping people safe.

“We want to make sure that our entire workforce knows what early warning signs are, and that the program itself is seen as a benevolent and caring process,” Knight said. “It’s not search and destroy. It’s not to get rid of the people we don’t like. It is about identifying people who may be at risk so we can help them help themselves before they reach a point where they feel like they have nothing left to lose or nothing left to live for.”

Safety professionals shouldn’t feel that they must tackle workplace violence on their own. Knight recommends attending seminars or training sessions and bringing in a consultant or law-enforcement expert who could help design an effective program. Smaller workplaces may belong to larger associations within their industry that also may provide help.

Media reports often paint a false image of workplace violence, Knight claims. Headlines such as “Worker snaps” imply a lack of warning signs prior to the violent event. Rarely is that the case.

Minnesota OSHA offers more than a dozen indicators that may point toward an increased risk in worker violence, including:

  • Sudden, persistent complaining about unfair treatment
  • Blaming others for problems
  • Change in behavior or decline in job performance
  • Stated hope for something bad to happen to supervisor or co-worker
  • Increase in absenteeism
  • Refusal to accept criticism about work performance
  • Inability to manage feelings; outbursts of swearing or slamming doors

The danger isn’t limited to co-workers. Sometimes, individuals may show up to a domestic partner’s workplace with the intent to do harm. Or a customer may feel wronged by a particular company and want to take out his or her frustrations on employees.

Dr. Steve Albrecht is a security consultant and threat assessment expert based in San Diego. Albrecht said a program viewed by workers as benevolent and caring can help cultivate a collective safety effort.

“What I try to say to employees in training is, don’t ignore your gut instincts,” Albrecht said. “We have a process for this now. And you telling us something, even a small piece of information, could make a huge impact on keeping everybody else safe. I think more and more employees have the courage to do that because they now see it as an ‘us’ issue.

“My belief is that the subject has evolved to become a mature workplace issue – kind of like sexual harassment. So, you say, ‘We have a sexual harassment policy, we have an investigative response, we have consequences for the perpetrators and support for the victims.’

“Well, it’s the same thing for workplace violence. If you say or do something inappropriate at work, there is going to be an investigation, we are going to decide whether there are going to be consequences, and we’re going to provide support for the people who were around what happened.”

Three simple words

Experts say an effective workplace violence prevention program should include active shooter drills. Not unlike emergency drills for a fire or weather emergency, active shooter drills allow workers to practice what they would do if someone with a gun entered the facility.

Albrecht said workers should remember three simple words: Run, hide, fight. If able, workers should flee the building and bring as many colleagues as possible. Run to a safe location away from the building and then call the police. If exits are blocked, seek shelter in an enclosed room and barricade the door shut. Finally, as a last resort, be prepared to fight the shooter. Look for objects such as phones or laptops that may be used in self-defense. If there’s time, decide who will try to overtake the person and how it will take place.

“People really remember small things,” Albrecht said. “That’s why 911 works. That’s why ‘duck and cover’ works for an earthquake; or ‘stop, drop and roll’ for a fire. Well, three things for this: ‘Run, hide, fight.’ That is the national protocol. That’s what we’re trying to get people to do.”

Watch a video on workplace violence produced by the City of Houston.

However, organizations must be careful not to undo the progress by frightening their workers.

“I don’t want companies to overthink it,” Albrecht said. “I don’t want to make them create scenarios where people are afraid to come to work, or afraid to participate, or afraid this is going to happen. But say, ‘Look, file this away: Get out of the building as safely as possible, barricade as safely as possible, or fight back.’ Practice the drill without making it super dramatic.”

Workers often feel grateful hearing open, honest dialogue about workplace violence.

“A lot of employers are reluctant to do a program because they’re afraid that their workforce might think that there’s something going on they don’t know about,” Knight said. “But my experience has been, rather than being traumatized when a program is implemented, people feel empowered. They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, my employer cares about me.’”

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