Conflict is a fact of life in any workplace. Most of us learn to work through it, peacefully and constructively. But when you factor an unstable personality into the equation, it can be a recipe for dangerous behavior.

Take for instance Wesley Higdon, a press operator who murdered his supervisor and four co-workers at a Kentucky plastics factory in 2008. The trigger? Higdon reportedly had been reprimanded for not wearing his safety goggles and for using his cellphone on the job. (For more, see "Photo Gallery: Deadliest Workplace Shootings.")

Of the 4,383 workers who died on the job last year, 767 were the victims of workplace violence, according to preliminary 2012 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number includes 463 homicides and 225 suicides.

During a breakout session at the 2013 America's Safest Companies Conference in Atlanta, experts urged employers to develop policies and procedures that address workplace violence, terrorist attacks and catastrophic accidents – and sticking to them.

"When we talk about policies and procedures, these are the rules," said Steve Davis, president and CEO of the risk-management consulting firm GRM Inc. "They must be published. They must be trained. And they must be uniformly applied. If you miss one of those three, you're going to cause yourself a problem."

Davis also emphasized the importance of developing contingency plans that address how a company will recover after a catastrophic event such as a workplace shooting.

"Anyone who's experienced this kind of event understands that it's a difficult situation – people don't want to go back in there," Davis said.

Davis outlined a number of steps that firms should take to prepare for and manage the risk of workplace violence and other critical incidents:

  • Develop and implement an active-shooter program.
  • Establish policies and procedures regarding weapons in the workplace.
  • Perform a security-risk assessment of your facilities and operations.
  • Get to know your local emergency planning committees and state emergency response committees.
  • Participate in or monitor communitywide disaster drills.

Davis advised employers to meet with their local medical and hospital personnel to coordinate their respective emergency response plans.

"What's going to be their response?" Davis asked. "If someone has a gunshot wound, are they going to be treated locally? If there's an explosion, if the terrorism rises above just an active shooter and they've actually blown up a section of the plant, what's going to be the response? Where's the closest burn unit? Where are people going to end up? These kinds of things need to be asked."

Of course, it's one thing to have plans in place. It's quite another to execute those plans in a real-life situation.

That's why Davis emphasized that employers need to drill their plans, evaluate the results, make any necessary adjustments – and drill them some more.

Davis asked if any audience members had participated in a disaster drill that went smoothly. Then he asked them if anyone had taken part in a drill "that went horribly wrong." There were far more hands raised in response to the latter question.

"Unfortunately in real life, that's what can occur," Davis said. "You better have a plan, and you better drill it and you better know what you're going to do."