The spate of terrorist attacks and murders of police earlier this year made the topic of how to deal with violence in public spaces – including workplaces – top of mind for many employers.
OSHA estimates that two million people are victims of workplace violence each year. That may seem high because the agency defines violence as including violent threats and verbal abuse along with physical assaults and homicides of employees, customers, clients and visitors.
OSHA takes the issue seriously. Although there are no explicit regulations in this regard, having procedures to deal with it is seen as falling under the employer’s general responsibility under the law to provide a safe and healthful work environment.
Earlier this year OSHA trained inspectors to look for employer workplace violence prevention measures. If they visit you for another reason and discover that you don’t have them in place, that can lead to related citations.
Views of what a workplace violence prevention plan should look like vary. The only guidance offered by OSHA is specifically aimed at the healthcare industry, but the recommended steps could protect other employers when agency inspectors show up at your door. See here: https://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3148.pdf
Programs suggested by employment attorneys generally follow similar outlines and include the same kind of advice about how to proceed.
- Make sure your company’s anti-violence position centers around a strong zero-tolerance policy that is included in your employee handbook. Some attorneys say an anti-violence policy also should address workplace bullying, which can be the precursor to physical violence.
- Employees should be trained on the policy and in some instances receive additional training through a workplace violence prevention program and personal safety training program.
- Periodically retrain employees in your facility and safety measures, how to detect signs of workplace violence and that they should watch out for unfamiliar or unwelcome visitors.
- Encourage employees to report threats and incidents at work. Train them on your firm’s complaint procedures and how they should report information to management personnel.
- Enforce the consequences of violating the policy consistently to avoid claims of pretext.
A violent threat is a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing employees regardless of their background, notes attorney Allison Oasis Kahn of the law firm of Carlton Fields Jorden Burt.
“Employees who engage in such behavior cannot insulate themselves because they are members of a protected class or have engaged in protected activity,” she says. Also, be aware that employees who are mentally ill and dangerous are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Although incidents that tend to stick in our minds are murders by disgruntled and mentally ill employees, the vast majority of these incidents involve former or separated husbands and boyfriends who seek to kill their wives and girlfriends – and all too often anyone who is nearby.
“Pay attention to employees who may be victims of domestic violence, and give them your support,” says attorney Robin Shea of the law firm of Constangy Brooks Smith & Prophete.
She also advises employers to be as aggressive as is legally allowed in performing criminal background checks on new hires. Many of the “ban the box” laws passed by states and cities allow employers to do so in the later stages of the hiring process.
When Threat Becomes Reality
But what are you supposed to do in situations like the one at the Orlando nightclub when the shooting starts? Law enforcement guidelines for handling active shooter situations have evolved rapidly – and so too has the advice they give to civilians.
The Department of Homeland Security has developed a website called “Active Shooter Preparedness” offering detailed guidance and advice: http://www.dhs.gov/active-shooter-preparedness
DHS recommends a three-step reaction to a shooting situation:
Run – have an escape route and plan in mind. Leave your belongings behind and keep your hands visible.
Hide – in an area out of the active shooter’s view; block entry to your hiding place and lock the doors.
Put up a fight – only as a last resort and only when your life is in imminent danger, by attempting to incapacitate the shooter with physical aggression and throwing items at him.
But after recent incidents some security experts say putting up a fight should come first. They believe fewer casualties will result because a shooter finds it more difficult to kill moving targets and impossible to defeat several people tackling him at once. However, this sounds like advice that is far easier to give than to take.