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Avoiding Workplace Violence

by Lawrence A. Kane, January 26, 2015

"Let the fear of danger be a spur to prevent it; he that fears not, gives advantage to the danger." – Francis Quarles

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 18,000 people a week are victimized by some sort of workplace violence in the United States. In fact, although industrial accidents abound, homicide is actually the leading cause of death among female workers and the second leading cause of death for men.

Does that statistic surprise you?

While there are an average of 17 homicides in the workplace each and every week, we don't hear about most of them because the national media rarely reports on such things unless a Fortune 500 company, multiple fatalities, or high visibility victims are involved.

Workplace violence is horrible, but victims aren't the only ones who suffer. Businesses are often crushed by such incidents too. For example, employers can face civil claims from victims, witnesses, and perpetrators for things such as negligent hiring, negligent retention, wrongful termination, or failure to warn. A fifteen percent stock hit is typical due to lost productivity, negative publicity, medical costs, and legal bills.

Prevention of Workplace Violence

Knowledge is the first step toward prevention. While dangers vary by industry, job type, and location, general risk factors include:

  • Significant change or workplace disruption (e.g., outsourcing, downsizing, restructuring)
  • Unstable or volatile clients (e.g., health care, social services, or criminal justice)
  • Public contact or work in community-based settings (e.g., social services, real estate agencies, or retail stores)
  • Mobile workplace or delivery of passengers, goods or services (e.g., taxicab, bus, law enforcement, delivery services, or construction trades)
  • Employees who work in isolation, late at night, or early in the morning (e.g., gas stations, convenience stores, or delivery drivers)
  • Guarding valuable possessions or property (e.g., armored car, bank, or jewelry store)

Unfortunately those who draft violence prevention policies often don't have the requisite knowledge to assure their success. Simply put, knee jerk reactions don't work, they might make people feel better but they rarely resolve anything or make anyone safer. Processes and procedures must be well thought out, comprehensive, fair, clearly communicated, and fully implemented.

We've all heard stories of convenience store clerks who were fired for defending themselves against violent threats. Their employers' policies placed them in situations where they were forced to comply and die or be fired for legally defending their lives, a lose/lose proposition if ever there was one.

Take the example of Nouria Energy Corporation who released the following statement in response to a 2013 incident, "We do respect the constitutional right to bear arms. However, we believe the best way to keep our employees and customers safe is to prohibit weapons in the workplace."

Really?! Why?

Compliance with predatory violence may keep you safe, but not always. It depends on what the predator wants, you, your stuff, or both. In cases where a criminal ties his victim up and/or transports them to a secondary location where he has the privacy and time necessary to commit whatever perversions he has in mind, things simply do not end well.

Imagine the lawsuits and bad publicity that would result from a clerk being tied up, dragged into the walk-in refrigerator, raped, and then murdered at a company's facility. Oh wait, that was a lawsuit…

So, how do create a safer workplace? Well, if you're an employer, why not start by actually trusting your employees? You hired 'em right? That means they must have knowledge, skills, and abilities that create value. Likely they can exercise good judgment too…

I have yet to see a weapon jump up and attack anyone without a person wielding it. Therefore, it's not the weapon in the workplace that's the issue but rather the person who uses it. To those with ill intent, "gun free" equals "target rich." Just sayin'… Besides, most workplaces are already packed with items that could be turned into items if someone had nefarious intent, things like fire extinguishers, vehicles, kitchen knives, construction tools, and coffee pots to name a few.

Weapons At Work?

Consequently if an employee has passed all the requirements (e.g., background check, training) necessary to be issued a concealed weapons permit, shouldn't that mean you could trust them more than someone who has not? After all, the government has extensively researched the person for you. So long as employees follow all applicable laws there's really no legitimate reason to prohibit them from bringing weapons to work.

But, that's not enough. Bring experts in to help craft actionable policies that actually solve the problem and not just make folks feel better while remaining unsafe. And, have the employees weigh in too. They might not be self-defense experts but they do know the job, the environment, and many of the threats they might face.

Well-thought-out procedures should be set in place to ensure a coordinated response if an attack occurs, addressing employee safety, site security, emergency services, and medical triage among other issues. If an incident occurs, site safety must be assessed, medical and law enforcement personnel must be contacted, incident areas must be secured to preserve evidence, and all employees must be accounted for once the dust settles. Provisions for medical and psychological follow-up, medical confidentiality, and payment of salary or benefits after the event must be in place where needed to prevent victims from suffering further loss.

Measures an employer takes to prevent workplace violence are not only a good thing generally, but they may well limit potential liability should something bad happen too.

Some important steps include:

  • Develop and implement a comprehensive risk mitigation plan
  • Provide safety education for employees so that they will understand what conduct is acceptable and know what to do during an emergency
  • Conduct comprehensive background and reference checks for all potential new hires and use credit checks to verify job applicant information
  • Research prior criminal convictions of potential hires that might reasonably relate to job duties as permitted by law (e.g., registered sex offenders cannot legally work with or around children in many jurisdictions)
  • Secure the workplace, limiting access by outsiders to sensitive areas via the use of identification badges, cipher locks, electronic keys, security personnel, and/or other reliable methods and use CCTV video where appropriate (e.g., areas frequented by customers, areas where valuables are stored)
  • Pre-program emergency numbers into employee phones and cellular devices (personnel who have not been trained how to react under stress will have degraded fine motor skills making it very difficult, if not impossible, to do something as simple as dialing 9-1-1; in locations where 9-9-1-1 dialing is required this can be even more challenging as more conscious thought is required to do it correctly)
  • Conduct routine drug and alcohol testing where appropriate (this generally means that testing must be job related and consistent with business necessity as permitted by law)
  • If employees work with large amounts of cash, provide safe drops to limit the amount of available cash on hand, especially during late evening and early morning hours
  • If employees must make home visits establish specific policies and procedures regarding client contact, ensure the presence of others as appropriate, and establish the right of employees to use discretion in avoiding hazardous situations
  • Ensure that any company vehicles are properly maintained and equip field staff with cellular phones or other communication devices that assure coverage throughout their routes.

Okay, all that's nice if you're in management, but what if you're "just" an employee and work for someone who isn't doing the right things?

Nothing can guarantee that an employee will never become a victim of workplace violence, yet there are prudent precautions that anyone can take to become more secure regardless of whether or not their company has a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program. Start by learning how to recognize, avoid, or de-escalate potentially violent situations by attending employer-provided training where available or finding private courses to go to on your own. Be sure to alert management of any safety or security concerns you may have and be assertive to ensure that your fears are understood.

Additional suggestions include:

  • Know your company's workplace violence procedures and emergency plans
  • Be professional, treating everyone you interact with on the job with dignity and respect
  • Carry only minimal money and required identification if you have to travel into community settings on the job
  • Avoid entering any location that you feel is unsafe, even if that means making someone else feel uncomfortable (e.g., waiting for the next elevator if you get the wrong vibe from someone already inside)
  • Report unusual co-worker or customer behaviors to management (focusing specifically on the behaviors and why they're suspicious)
  • Use a "buddy system" so that someone else is prepared to act in concert with you should an incident occur at the job site and so that someone knows where you are at all times if you have to travel to other locations to perform your work.
  • Identify hazards, escape routes, alternate exits, and hiding places at your workplace and along any routes you must travel to, from, or on the job
  • Identify areas of cover or concealment where you can hide from an attacker but also be aware that those same areas can also be used by perpetrators for ambushing their victims
  • Be aware of improvised weapons such as hot coffee, fire extinguishers, chairs, tools, lumber, company vehicles, cutlery, scissors, telephones, attaché cases, or car keys that you can easily access in an emergency
  • If you have a concealed weapons license understand your company's policy regarding weapons in the workplace

If something bad does happen on the job, never assume that someone else has already reported the incident. Call law enforcement personnel immediately upon reaching a safe location. Answer questions calmly and concisely, stay on the line, and follow the dispatcher's instructions.

Since 1970, Lawrence Kane has studied and taught traditional Asian martial arts, medieval European combat, and modern close-quarter weapon techniques. Working stadium security part-time over 26 years he was involved in hundreds of violent altercations, but got paid to watch football. A world-renown judicious use-of-force expert, he was once interviewed in English by a reporter from a Swiss magazine for an article that was published in French, and finds that oddly amusing. Lawrence lives in Seattle, WA. Lawrence lives in Seattle, WA.


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