By Bobbie J. Fox
Attorney for SCF Arizona
Violence in the workplace can happen to any business, regardless of the number of employees. According to a recent survey, over one-third of all organizations (36%) reported incidents of workplace violence. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that 2 million U.S. workers per year are victims of workplace violence. When it happens, the personal and economic toll on a business is great.
What is “workplace violence?”
Some believe the definition of workplace violence is like the definition of pornography – elusive, but you know it when you see it. Definitions have been attempted by several organizations. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines workplace violence as any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse that occurs in the work setting. This includes psychological trauma due to threats, obscene phone calls, an intimidating presence and harassment.
ASIS International (a security professionals association) and Society of Human Resources (SHRM) have developed an American National Standard for Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention, defining workplace violence as “a spectrum of behaviors – including overt acts of violence, threats, and other conduct – that generates a reasonable concern for safety from violence . . . on-site or off-site, when related to the organization.”
My own definition, simply put, is violence or the threat of violence or harm that happens at work or is related to the workplace. This includes harassment, bullying, sabotage, destruction of resources and domestic violence when it spills over into the workplace, as it often does. And, of course, I will know it when I see it.
What is the employer’s responsibility?
All employers have a legal obligation to their employees to provide a safe place to work. Section 5(a)(1) of Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 states that the employer must furnish a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”
Risk of legal liability
When workplace violence happens, employers are exposed to potential legal liability under other laws. For example, an injury at work results in a workers’ compensation claim. The injured employee would likely qualify for medical leave, implicating the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disability Act, for both physical and mental impairments. OSHA could issue fines, citations or criminal charges.
If a customer or other non-employee is injured, the employer could be liable in a negligence action as well, such as for negligent hiring, negligent retention or negligent supervision.
In addition to legal risk, there is often a significant impact on other employees and their families, resulting in a large physical, emotional and economic toll on the business. A business can expect significant reputational damage as well if they failed to protect employees and third parties.
Tips for prevention
Employers may consider implementing prevention strategies.
1. Implement a workplace violence prevention program involving:
- Training of managers on the warning signs for workplace and domestic violence
- Communicating to employees the seriousness of this issue and the requirement that they report all suspicious activity or potential threats.
- Having a threat response procedure and making sure your employees are aware of it
- Investigating all complaints of potential threats and respond appropriately
- Advising employees that if they have a protective order or injunction against anyone that involves the workplace or when they are concerned the threatening person could come to work, they must notify Human Resources. Employees may be especially sensitive in domestic violence situations, so assure them that you will treat it as confidential as possible.
2. Implement physical controls; for example, limit public access, install video cameras, increase lighting, escort employees to their cars at night and consider security guards.
3. Conduct a background check on all job applicants prior to hiring (there are legal considerations here, so do your research first).
4. Talk to your employees about what they see as risks. They may have new ideas and you will get their buy-in for prevention.
5. Offer an Employee Assistance Program so both a victim and perpetrator can seek confidential counseling and assistance
6. Communicate local domestic violence shelters and resources that are available for employees.
QUESTION: As a small business employer, what have you done to make your place of business safe from violence? Share your ideas on how to keep sudden violence from impacting your business.
Follow Bobbie J. Fox on Twitter: @BobbieJFox