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Corporate Liability In Workplace Violence

What is workplace violence?

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors. Homicide is currently the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), of the 4,679 fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the United States in 2014, 403 were workplace homicides. [More...] However it manifests itself, workplace violence is a major concern for employers and employees nationwide.

Who is at risk of workplace violence?

Nearly 2 million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year. Unfortunately, many more cases go unreported. Research has identified factors that may increase the risk of violence for some workers at certain worksites. Such factors include exchanging money with the public and working with volatile, unstable people. Working alone or in isolated areas may also contribute to the potential for violence. Providing services and care, and working where alcohol is served may also impact the likelihood of violence. Additionally, time of day and location of work, such as working late at night or in areas with high crime rates, are also risk factors that should be considered when addressing issues of workplace violence. Among those with higher-risk are workers who exchange money with the public, delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents, law enforcement personnel, and those who work alone or in small groups.

How can workplace violence hazards be reduced?

In most workplaces where risk factors can be identified, the risk of assault can be prevented or minimized if employers take appropriate precautions. One of the best protections employers can offer their workers is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence. This policy should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.

By assessing their worksites, employers can identify methods for reducing the likelihood of incidents occurring. OSHA believes that a well-written and implemented workplace violence prevention program, combined with engineering controls, administrative controls and training can reduce the incidence of workplace violence in both the private sector and federal workplaces.

OSHA violations

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not outlined any specific standards for workplace violence, employers do have obligations under OSHA which may be relevant. Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, every employer “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

In the case of workplace violence, an employer could be liable under OSHA if a victim or victim’s family can prove that the employer knew or should have known that violence could occur. Under OSHA, an employer may also be penalized if the U.S. Secretary of Labor establishes that the employer violated the General Duty Clause. In order to establish a violation, the Department of Labor must prove a hazard existed, the employer or its industry knew the hazard existed, the hazard was likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, and a feasible abatement method existed. In recent years, OSHA has applied the General Duty Clause in numerous other workplace injury cases where no specific standard was in effect.

Along with federal standards, different states and cities may have their own regulations regarding workplace safety, and employers must be in compliance with all relevant regulations wherever they operate or have employees.

Employers also have a duty to exercise ordinary care. If workplace violence occurs, they may be sued for negligence if they knew or should have known of a potentially dangerous situation. Lawsuits could be based on negligent hiring, retention, training, or supervising of an employee who went on to commit violence at the workplace. Employers may also be sued for negligence if a customer or someone else made threats before carrying out violent acts, yet management failed to take any action.

Failing to create a safe environment

As the Old Navy case illustrates, employers can be held liable when non-employees can enter the workplace and commit violent acts.

Limiting workplace violence

Since workplace violence can take many different forms, it can be difficult to anticipate the many different vulnerabilities that employees face. According to a report issued by NIOSH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, workplace violence incidents “arise out of a variety of circumstances: some involve criminals robbing taxicab drivers, convenience stores, or other retail operations; clients or patients attacking providers in health care or social service offices; disgruntled workers seeking revenge; or domestic abuse that spills over to the workplace . . ..”

The best approach to limiting lawsuits from workplace violence is to minimize the chances that employees, customers, and others will ever be at risk of a physical or verbal assault. When companies attempt to create a safe workplace for employees or customers, they probably consider slip-and-falls or other types of hidden dangers. But, employers first need to accept that violence is a real possibility which should be planned for. There are several key ways to plan for and prevent workplace violence.

Conduct background checks

Employers should conduct a background check whenever they hire new personnel, and this should include a report on any history of violence or threats.

Adopt a zero-tolerance policy

Employers should make it clear that any type of violence, verbal abuse, or harassment is completely unacceptable and such behavior will have disciplinary consequences, including termination. This zero-tolerance policy should be spelled out during employee orientation, in the employee handbook, and during ongoing training.

Companies should create a process for employees to report potentially dangerous people or situations, and managers and supervisors should be trained about how to respond to these concerns. Threats should be taken seriously and reported through the proper channels immediately.

Monitor employees

With proper notice, employers have the right to monitor their employees’ work e-mail, phone calls, and other activities, and they should use that right when necessary. This is particularly true when there are indications that employees may be dangerous or become disgruntled.

Employers should also be prepared for the potential of a violent response to terminations and lay-offs. Unfortunately, there have been many cases of former employees returning to work with the intention of harming their one-time colleagues. In December 2009, a recently fired employee of a Louisiana construction company returned to the company’s offices, where he killed two women and wounded a third. The husband of one of the murdered workers later sued the company, claiming that it ignored threats the shooter made at the time he was fired.

When employees are fired, be sure that they surrender any keys, bar-code IDs, and other means of access to the workplace. Security personnel should have an updated list of former employees who are no longer allowed at the worksite. It’s also a good idea to change codes and PIN numbers periodically, so an ex-employee cannot sneak back in.

Use physical safeguards

Where feasible, employers should consider how they can physically safeguard the workplace. This can include security guards, surveillance equipment, and ID processes. At retail places, it may include extra-wide counters or bullet-proof glass. Employee entrances should be accessible only through key codes or PIN numbers.

Consult the experts

Since laws vary from state to state, employers should talk to their legal counsel to understand their potential risks and liabilities. When it comes to workplace violence, though, they should also consult those who specialize in the field. This can include security companies that assess threats and the physical safety of the workplace and suggest improvements. Domestic violence is another significant cause of workplace injuries, so employers should talk to those with specific expertise in this area who can suggest how to respond when workers are threatened by current or former spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends.

Be prepared

Despite best-in-class programs to prevent dangerous attacks, workplace violence may still occur, and employers need to be prepared. Depending on the location, organizations may be able to develop a lock-down or evacuation process and ensure that employees are trained in what to do and where to go. Employers should also identify a crisis management team that can be immediately assembled in the event of an incident. The team should be prepared to deal with the concerns of every stakeholder, including employees, corporate management, shareholders, the public, and law enforcement as necessary.

Workplace violence can have a profound, disturbing effect on everyone who is impacted. Employers should take precautions to ensure that every employee and customer is safe, and because that is not always entirely possible, employers should also adopt practices that attempt to identify sources of violence and ultimately protect the company from the lawsuits that often follow workplace violence.

  • Workplace Violence Prevention Needs Assessment: We review and evaluate current strengths, capabilities and resources supporting the development of a workplace violence prevention program, as well as critical areas to develop and integrate. We also analyze key functions and departments such as Security, HR, Operations, Legal, employee assistance program and line management.

  • Employee Survey on Workplace Violence: To gather insight into the general work environment and employees’ experiences, training, awareness and feelings about the potential for incidents of workplace violence, we distribute an independent, anonymous survey electronically to all employees.

  • Workplace Violence Prevention Policy and Program Development: We provide clear, actionable guidance on areas ranging from the formation of a cross-functional multi-disciplinary team to core operational policies, practices, compliance, privacy and reporting issues.

  • Establishment of Threat Assessment Team(s): We provide assistance with the creation of multi-disciplinary behavioral threat assessment teams composed of internal representatives from HR, Security and Legal, as well as external specialists in law enforcement, mental health and targeted violence, among others. Additionally, we define roles and responsibilities for the team members.

  • Training of Key Stakeholders: We develop curriculum for the general workforce, managers and the Threat Assessment Team that addresses real-world risks and frequency of workplace violence. It focuses on awareness as a vital first line of defense and emphasizes reporting protocols.

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