Everyone knows that the easiest way to grab attention, win friends and generally get people excited about what you have to say is to start rattling off facts and statistics. Or, am I wrong, and is that, instead, the fastest way to lose your audience, send your friends scurrying, and kill the mood?
Well, let’s find out. Did you know:
Whoa, big left turn there — those last three aren’t amusing at all. Not surprisingly, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn’t think they’re funny, either, and is stepping up its inspection and enforcement efforts with the goal of significantly reducing incidents of workplace violence.
OSHA’s power to do so comes from what’s known as the “general duty” clause, which generally requires employers to furnish a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” What that means in general is that OSHA wants you to have a formal program for evaluating your workplace for potential risk areas, taking preventative steps to minimize possible hazards, and responding appropriately when harm (or the potential for harm) occurs.
OSHA is now applying that same basic rubric to workplace violence. And while such an approach seems like common sense in light of the shocking statistics above, the problem is that even those employers that do have robust formal safety programs very often don’t include a component focusing on workplace violence.
So, if you haven’t planned for the possibility of violence in your workplace, now is the time to start doing so. As OSHA puts it: “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 all workplaces.”
OSHA explains “workplace violence” about as well as anyone I’ve seen. Here’s their take:
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.
The cost to organizations is staggering. It is impossible to overstate the costs of workplace violence, because a single incident can have sweeping repercussions. There can be the immediate and profound loss of life or physical or psychological repercussions felt by the victim as well as the victim's family, friends, and co-workers; the loss of productivity and morale that sweeps through an organization after a violent incident; and the public relations impact on an employer when news of violence reaches the media.
Recognizing the risk factors specific to your workplace is the first step to establishing protocols that will reduce the likelihood of incidents occurring.
The threat assessment process starts with understanding where violence can come from. While “active shooter” scenarios are the place most of us go first when thinking of the workplace violence, they really represent a small percentage of workplace violence claims. Instead, there are four broad sources of workplace violence:
Interestingly, domestic violence accounts for between 25% and 30% of violent events in the workplace. This makes a sad sort of sense if you think about it, since domestic violence is often about control, and the workplace is the one place the perpetrator has no control over the victim. Also, victims often try to leave violent relationships, and while the perpetrator doesn’t know where the victim may have sought shelter, he/she does know where the victim works.
So, while it’s important to know all of the directions from which risks of potential violence may present themselves, let’s focus on an area that all employers have in common: coworker violence.
Let’s start by looking at aspects of your workplace culture or environment that could trigger or increase the likelihood of potential violence:
This is far from an exhaustive list. But the point to be had is that, if there is something potentially “toxic” about your environment — whether that be individual employee conflict, a team issue, a departmental problem, or an organizational level concern — then the risk of potential violence increases proportionately.
And the good thing about your culture or environment is that you have absolute control over it, and thus should have the power to remedy each of the risk factors listed above.
Employees who commit acts of violence upon their coworkers almost certainly have some sort of mental health issue, since such behavior is not normal or acceptable. However, that doesn’t take you off the hook, since there are almost always triggers and warning signs that employers should have been aware of. Moreover, once you recognize cause-concerning behaviors, there are things you may be able to do to intervene and redirect the behavior.
The following is a list of behaviors that can be warning signs of the potential for violent behavior. Of course, just because employees may demonstrate one or more of these behaviors doesn’t automatically mean they will assault their coworkers. However, intervention is still critical, because even if violence doesn’t result, each of these behaviors will impact other critical job functions, such as performance and team dynamics, which makes it all the more important to get involved right away.
If you’ve ever had to “walk on eggshells” around a coworker, that’s a problem. It also points out the larger dilemma: Most people (managers included) don’t address or confront such behaviors, and, instead, avoid or ignore them with the false hope that they will magically resolve themselves. That’s a shame, since early intervention almost always results in effective resolution, whereas ignoring a flame until it becomes a conflagration is guaranteed to fail.
Here’s the first thing OSHA recommends that you do to start the process of violence risk reduction in the workplace:
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.
However, a policy is a departure point, not an ending point, and there are a number of other things you should be doing to ensure your environment is healthy. Taking the following steps will go a long way toward creating a workplace where employees look out for each other, and where every employee feels respected and part of the community.
In the end, there is no way to guarantee a workplace permanently free from the threat of potential coworker violence. However, taking the steps discussed above will go a long way toward not only making OSHA happy, should they ever come out for an inspection, but should significantly reduce the risks you face.
There are a number of ways we can help. For our HR Hotline or handbook clients, we have template policies that can be good places to start, and we can talk through any issues or concerns you may have. We can also come out and conduct manager and employee training on harassment and violence issues. Finally, I encourage you to attend our free webinar on these issues, "Preparing for violence or disaster in the workplace," which is coming up in November.
For more information about workplace violence, employee safety and related issues, please contact us.
James provides guidance to employers on a variety of topics with a focus on employment, risk management and liability issues. In addition to working directly with employers, he regularly conducts in-depth training through webinars, at client sites, and through the University of Minnesota’s Continuin
James provides guidance to employers on a variety of topics with a focus on employment, risk management and liability issues. In addition to working directly with employers, he regularly conducts in-depth training through webinars, at client sites, and through the University of Minnesota’s Continuing Ed program. He previously was a plaintiff’s attorney and brings that perspective into his advice to employers. James received his law degree from the University of Minnesota and his BA from Washington University in St. Louis.
If you could give human form to your safety culture, what would it look like?
Maybe it would be a thick-set, shirtless brute named Trog with a foul disposition beating out a drum cadence to keep your employees rowing in-sync.
Or would it be more like a fussy and constantly disapproving Dickensian paper-pusher named Fizzlewhite who has never met a rule or procedure he didn’t like, even though he hasn’t done most of the things he creates rules to address?
If you were to search the various “mommy blogs” and parenting advice websites out there, how many of them do you think would endorse the following practice?
A child’s safety should always be a top priority for any parent. When leaving children under the age of 10 alone in the house for lengthy periods of time, be sure to provide the kids with a loaded pistol with the safety off in case a stranger should happen by. In a pinch, recently sharpened knives can be substituted for the pistol.
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