Workplace violence and emergency preparedness arguably were the hottest topics at this year’s National Safety Congress in Anaheim, Calif.

The definition of workplace violence does not encompass a violent shooter situation, but any communicated threat, harassment or bullying, said Carol Casteel, associate professor, department of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.

Throughout the session, attendees were polled about workplace violence and live results were revealed. When asked if they had a workplace violence policy in place, just over half, 52 percent, of the audience indicated that they did.

Workers most at-risk of homicide include law enforcement, restaurant, convenience store, taxi service and gas station. Likewise, employees in customer service professions with close public interaction are at risk for violence.

Healthcare and social workers are at five times greater risk than those in other industries to become a victim of workplace violence because of negative patient interactions, said Kumani Armstrong, counsel, California's Department of Industrial Relations. The department is working on statewide recommendations for workplace violence prevention which will be released in the near future.

With that standard definition established and common at-risk professions identified, Carol Cambridge, CEO, Violence Free told attendees about seven mistakes workplaces are making when it comes to developing a policy and how to go about correcting those mistakes.

1. Policies that are misunderstood or nonexistent

Policies are often too vague or too complex, Cambridge said. A document should be written at 8th grade level to accommodate all levels of workers.

“You want to make the policy clear, specific and easy to understand,” she said.

In cases of domestic violence that spill into an employee’s place of employment, management should take responsibility to ensure the worker takes protective measures before the situation escalates.

“Are your asking employees to come forward and make sure they have an order of protection?” she inquired.

2. Not handling threats properly

“Indirect warning signs may not be worrisome, but together they may say something,” Cambridge said.

A threat assessment team should be established, she said. This way, it eliminates the issue of one person making a decision. A group of people would be able to analyze a threat and assess if there is true risk involved.

3. Assuming people know what to do

Cambridge went into detail about a specific example she encountered as a consultant. An employee had been receiving graphic messages from another employee for months but did not report it until the offending worker was let go.

An employee could have three main reasons they do not report a threat; they’re afraid of getting involved; they don’t want to be bullied or they don’t believe something could happen.

4. No relationships

A company should foster relationships with local law enforcement, security firms, psychologists and legal experts.

“I think it is important that you have a list of resources,” Casteel said in the panel Q&A discussion. “You need to have these people on speed dial.”

5. Disconnect between HR, security, EHS and facilities

Both small and large companies could demonstrate a communication disconnect when it comes to workplace violence prevention. Smaller companies lack the capital to have sufficient resources, leaving one person to do the work, Cambridge said. For larger companies, multiple sites and personnel could cause a communication breakdown.

6. Minimal or no training

Employees should know the ins-and-outs of workplace violence: how to recognize a threat or abnormal behavior and what actions to take in certain situations. Simply sitting employees down and lecturing them about workplace violence over and over again won’t help, Cambridge said.

“The talking heads scenario no longer works,” she said. “You need to engage adults.”

7. Not identifying gaps and vulnerabilities

Managers should assess workplace violence policies regularly, identifying any gaps in communication or training that could cause warning signs to slip past employees.

“You need to identify what your unique situations are,” Cambridge said. “Everyone should be able to understand what the red flags are. When people are desperate and don’t know what else to do, violence is an answer to them.”

The session concluded with Kevin Foust, chief of police and director of security at Virginia Tech. Foust described the rolling hills of Virginia, the rural setting in which Virginia Tech is located. Before the Virginia Tech campus shooting happened on Apr. 16, 2007, he never expected a violent act to happen on the otherwise safe campus.

He told attendees to put one thought out of their minds, “It’ll never happen here.”

“I can’t emphasize training enough,” Foust said. “When it comes down to it, you never know when you’re going to use it.”