Each year, close to 2 million workers are victims of workplace violence in the United States, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The federal agency defines workplace violence as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening behavior that occurs at a worksite. It can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide.
To reduce these incidents, experts recommend employers conduct vulnerability assessments and training that will assist employees in identifying questionable behaviors.
Victims of workplace violence miss 1.8 million days of work every year, and the annual cost of workplace violence for employers is estimated to be nearly $121 billion, according to statistics from the Department of Justice and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
An employer can be held civilly liable for injuries sustained by a victim if the employer knew or should have known that violence could occur. Under OSHA, an employer can also be penalized if it violated the General Duty Clause. According to the clause, employers have a duty to protect employees from all hazards, even if there is no standard.
Employers’ increased concern to protect staff from these incidents has led insurers to focus on the issue. According to Denise Balan, Americas Head for XL Catlin’s Crisis Management insurance business, “Any act of workplace violence can result in employee injury, business interruption and reputational damage.” The insurer introduced workplace violence coverage last year.
A survey by crisis coaching firm Firestorm revealed that more than 90 percent of employees are concerned about workplace violence, while only about 50 percent have had any formal training related to it. Jim Satterfield, president, chief operating officer and founder of Firestorm, said there are warning signs that precede most workplace violence incidents.
Isolated work environments, lone workers and places where alcohol is served could affect the likelihood of violence, according to a 2017 CNA whitepaper, “Managing the Threats of Workplace Violence.” According to CNA’s whitepaper, workplace “threats” can be both internal (co-worker, supervisor or customer) or external (family member, stranger). The simple act of holding a door open for a coworker might be enough to grant entry “to someone terminated the day before who has returned for revenge,” the whitepaper stated.
Experts say having policies and procedures in place is one step in mitigating workplace violence. They recommend training employees to identify behaviors that may be predictive of a future violent event.
Satterfield said many employers have no formal structure to address observations beforehand. He explained the value in having a central data repository, because it can assist in connecting the dots of what may appear to be unrelated behavior. Documentation of what coworkers and employers see and hear, as well as documentation of an employee’s actions, are to be included in the repository.
Continued focus and senior management commitment in personnel security is required to mitigate workplace violence, according to the CNA whitepaper. “Staying on top of workplace culture, staffing and assessing the impact of workplace policies can uncover conditions, situations and moods adversely affecting worker morale, performance, production, and efficiency that eventually lead to workplace conflict. Contributing factors include downsizing or reorganizing departments, sizable layoffs, growth of technology, recession, large mergers, post modernism and unemployment.”
Brendan King, CEO of Crisis Consultant Group, spent eight years working with at-risk youth at a locked residential treatment facility where he constantly faced violent behavior.
“I went through a number of different training programs in how … to verbally deescalate, how to try to predict crisis, how to identify things early. Quite honestly, a lot of them were very bad. They worked great on paper, but when it came time to actually use their system or their techniques, they were really ineffective,” King said.
King also served in the Marine Corps and worked in law enforcement for several years before starting the Richmond, Va.-based company in 2004.
“We know from Virginia Tech … it’s alleged that there were about 13 to 14 visits that Cho had with staff at Tech, with mental health staff and other individuals that work in the organization,” King said.
King developed a curriculum of preventative tips for employers.
“If there’s opportunities where we can preemptively try to stop these things before they happen, then obviously, that’s what we want to do. Run, hide, fight is great. We, of course, teach that but … we break it down into three distinct subject areas. We call it LLT,” King said. “Look, listen, tell.”
Look and listen means to watch for changes in behavior, changes in statements and even abrupt changes in political beliefs, King said.
King said that some employees may not want to report something potentially suspicious to a supervisor, fearing they may be wrong. Instead, he recommended talking to a coworker about it.
“If you’re not comfortable going to the supervisor, go to the coworker, someone who also works alongside that individual and say, ‘Hey, can I talk to you for a second? I know we both work with John. I’ve noticed … ever since his divorce, he seems like he’s really just negative and his attitude’s changed. Have you heard anything, have you noticed anything? I’m a little worried about him,” King said.
CNA examined how vulnerability assessments and a tiered approach to mitigating workplace violence through training and education can assist in mitigating these types of events:
Tier 1 – Policies and Procedures
Tier 2 – Awareness Training
Tier 3 – Managers and Supervisors Training
Tier 4 – Threat Management Team Training
Tier 5 – Crisis Management and Executive Team
According to the paper’s authors, “there is compelling evidence to suggest that employers who take a proactive stance toward problematic behavior will be more successful in deterring workplace violence. By detecting and interceding “at risk” or intimidating behavior in the early stages, the threat can often be mitigated or avoided before it becomes dangerous or life-threatening.”
The paper stated that most violent incidents end prior to law enforcement arrival. Thus, employees must learn to manager fear and keep their emotions in check to survive a violent workplace incident.
For employers slow to adopt workplace violence training, there may be another reason to do so sooner rather than later. OSHA is preparing to announce a new standard related to workplace violence prevention training, policy and planning, King said. The agency currently mandates that all companies provide basic workplace violence prevention training to their employees, should they be exposed to violence.
“Just like when you go to a new job and they require you to have first aid and they require you to have sexual harassment training and prevention in the workplace, they are considering making a new standard that says every company must provide workplace violence prevention training, specifically around assault and use of weapons, active shooter type events,” King said.
He said companies will become more proactive in seeking this type of training to avoid the expected fines associated with a future OSHA rule.
“As you know, it really stems from liability,” explained King. “If you don’t train your employees and prepare them well, they’re going to say, ‘You never prepared me, and that’s why you’re liable.'”