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Create a program to protect your workplace against violence

Tom Keefhaver

Several years ago, I was held-up at gunpoint. My mind raced as I thought how I was going to escape injury or death and eliminate the threat. Some rational, calculated thinking and calm movements de-escalated a potentially life-threatening situation.

We have all seen media footage of tragic, violent events in this country. Many of those acts happened in public locations that are also workplaces: a movie theater in Colorado; a power plant in Missouri; an elementary school in Connecticut. Workplace violence takes on many different guises and is often confused with other crimes.

What, exactly, is workplace violence? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it includes physical assault (including any unwanted touching or physical contact), threatening behavior and verbal abuse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, there were 4,547 fatal workplace injuries in the U.S. in 2010, 506 of them reported as workplace homicides. Most businesses risk some form of violence occurring in the workplace. Fortunately, many risks can be mitigated with proper protection measures.

Risk factors for violence include unemployment in a stagnant economy, tolerance for violence in social settings, low staffing levels and a greater need for services from businesses or agencies. Solo work (often in remote locations), high crime settings with no back-up assistance through communication devices or alarm systems, and employee inattention to policies can put employees at higher risk of workplace violence.

A business’s greatest asset is its employees. Workplace violence contributes to employee injuries, stress, increased sick days, reduced morale, lost wages and higher health-care costs. Businesses must not allow acts of violence to occur in the workplace, and that position needs a written policy. Businesses must investigate all complaints of workplace violence and report them to the company’s human resources department and on certain occasions need to report them to law enforcement. Employers should be alert to the indicators of workplace violence and use early intervention measures. Most cases of workplace violence are not spontaneous; they’ve usually been building for a long time. Your employees can tell you what risk factors you might be overlooking and what may be the cause.

Employers need to remember that the threat of violence may not originate from within the walls of the company. A growing number of incidents nationwide involve family members, spouses and domestic partners, or even outsiders committing acts of violence like armed robbery. Workplace violence falls into four main categories:

* Criminal intent (stranger against employee)

* Customer/client (customer against employee)

* Worker-on-worker (employee against employee)

* Personal relationship (bringing domestic violence to work).

With a stranger, customer or someone else’s spouse or partner, you may have only a few seconds to recognize a potential problem before it occurs. With an employee, you may have observed that person over months or even years and noticed behavior changes that might signal a potential for violence.

A workplace violence program increases employees’ awareness of their work environment. It is also covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which recognizes that employers are required to provide a safe working environment “free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” What this means for employers is that if a business has experienced acts of violence, or even becomes aware of threats or intimidation in the workplace, it is effectively put on notice of that risk and should implement a program to prevent such violence.

How do you start a program to protect yourself and your employees? Begin by having a written Workplace Violence Prevention Program that outlines your company’s zero-tolerance stances on workplace violence. From there, you can supplement the program with a workplace safety and security survey and workplace violence awareness class designed for your unique environment. When complete, the survey will identify areas of opportunity for employees and employers to assist in reducing the potential for violence. Each business caters to the specific needs of its customers, so each business has different layouts, methods of operation and levels of security. No individual plan will work for every business.

An employer must communicate with employees in order to access information that will help identify contributing factors of workplace violence. Most important, the employer must act upon the information and seek assistance from resources that may include counselors and law enforcement.

Tom Keefhaver is a safety and security consultant for the Truckee Meadows Community College Safety Center. He has been an active member of the security, safety and law enforcement community since 1993. He holds a degree in criminal justice and is a MSHA, EPA and Department of Energy certified instructor specializing in regulatory compliance and investigations.