With the proliferation of violence everywhere, including the workplace, safety experts need to understand the scope of the issue explained Tracy L. Moon, Jr. and Steven Loewengart of Fisher & Phillips LLP at the Safety Leadership Conference 2016 held recently.

“You didn’t think you would have to be dealing with these types of issues, including people threatening to commit suicide,” Loewengart told the audience of safety experts.

But they need to, said Loewengart, given the level of violence. On a daily basis, 43,800 employees are harassed, 16,400 threatened and 723 workers are attacked according to research from the Workplace Violence Research Institute.

The concept of harassment is somewhat new. “Workplace violence has a broader view that includes threatening to hurt someone,” said Loewengart.  

He defined workplace violence as against any employee that creates a hostile work environment and negatively affects the employee physically or psychologically. This could include: physical or verbal assault, threats, coercion, intimidation and harassment.

To understand the type of person who has been shown to commit violence the institute created a profile:

  • White male, 35-45 years of age
  • Transient job history
  • A “loner” with little or no family or social support
  • Chronically disgruntled
  • Externalizes blame
  • High maintenance employee
  • Fascination with weaponry
  • Identifies with violence
  • More than a casual user of
    alcohol/or drugs

While it’s important to keep in mind the profile characteristics, Loewengart says that safety professionals must focus on behaviors and not profiles.

The behaviors are not always obvious, he said, and presented the following list compiled by researches of over  200 workplace violence incidents. The research showed that the perpetrator exhibited multiple pre-incident indicators:

  • Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs
  • Unexplained increase in absenteeism
  • Noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and personal hygiene
  • Depression and withdrawal
  • Outbursts of anger or rage without provocation
  • Threatens or verbally abuses co-workers and/or supervisors
  • Comments that indicate suicidal tendencies
  • Unstable emotional responses
  • Preoccupation with previous incidents of violence
  • Increased mood swings
  • Increase in unsolicited comments about firearms and
    other weapons
  • Empathy with individuals committing violence
  • Fascination with violent or sexually explicit movies
    or publications
  • Escalation of domestic problems
  • Financial problems
  • Violence Research

A common thread of this list, Loewengart notes, is that many of these behaviors would describe someone who has mental health challenges. The issue is how legally to deal with this. He suggests having well-defined policies.  A policy must have step-by-step criteria on how to handle someone who is verbally abusive or make threats. This procedure will give companies a good defense under ADA or other claims, he explained.

In order to have strong policies, Tracy Moon talked about how the safety department must work with the HR department as they are the ones that have the pulse on potential incidents of workplace violence.

Moon talked about the how to develop a program and offered this advice based on the many programs his firm has created for companies.

  • Establish a workplace violence prevention committee.
  • Evaluate the organization’s ability to handle a violent situation.
  • Identify and engage resources to fill any skills gaps.
  • Develop a procedure for reporting threats and incidents of violence.
  • Develop a written workplace violence policy.
  • Develop a crisis action plan.

“Making it easy to report threats is vital so the company can make sure it deals with issues before they become a real problem,” says Moon.

There are also specific action steps a company can take to prevent the violence.

  • Screening
  • Drug testing
  • Policies
  • Training
  • Security
  • Searches
  • Threat investigation
  • Employee assistance program
  • Discharge
  • Problem solving & ADR

Moon explained that companies make common errors in how they workplace violence.

  • Ignoring or neglecting threatening behavior
  • Escalating risk through confrontational approaches
  • Failing to coordinate information and resources
  • Premature or inappropriate police involvement
  • Encouraging the use of restraining orders against irrational or desperate people
  • Sending employees exhibiting threatening behavior for “fitness for duty” evaluations
  • Expecting counselors, employee assistance program or mental health professionals to change employee’s personality
  • Failing to document misconduct

Moon offered practical ways to develop a program:

  • Establish a workplace violence prevention committee.
  • Evaluate the organization’s ability to handle a violent situation.
  • Identify and engage resources to fill any skills gaps.
  • Develop a procedure for reporting threats and incidents of violence.
  • Develop a written workplace violence policy.
  • Develop a crisis action plan.

Both lawyers made the point that companies need to document everything that happens around the issue of workplace violence. They concluded that while violence cannot be prevented companies can work to reduce it and minimize the impact.