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How Employers Can Protect Against External and Internal Violence in the Workplace

Although violence in the workplace is never a topic employers want to discuss, employers are responsible for keeping their employees and customers safe.  Regardless of an employer’s size, location or type of industry, workplace violence is a realistic concern.  According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), approximately 2 million American workers are victims of violence in the workplace each year.  Hence, it is crucial that employers not only take actions to protect against external threats of workplace violence to employees, but also develop and implement a workplace violence policy and workplace violence prevention training to protect against internal threats of workplace violence.

Workplace Violence Defined:  OSHA defines workplace violence as an act or threat of hostility, harassment, physical violence, intimidation, or any threatening behavior that disrupts the workplace.  Workplace violence can occur within or outside the workplace and can range from verbal abuse to threats of outright physical assault.  Regardless of the form, external and internal workplace violence is a growing concern for both employees and employers.

Preventing External Violence

Conducting a Security Assessment:  To address potential external threats to your business, employers should conduct a security assessment to identify and address any security issues your workplace may have in order to provide workplace violence training specific to your business and reduce risk to your employees in the future.

When assessing your business’s security vulnerabilities, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What kind of neighborhood is your business located in? Is your office located in a building that provides security guards, or is it located in a warehouse in an industrial district, for example?

  2. Is your office surrounded by other businesses that may make your office more vulnerable? Are you located next to a bank that could be robbed?

  3. Do your employees handle cash? Do these workers also interact with the public?

  4. Is your business open to the public? Does your business require employees to access the building with a key or a code?

  5. Are people able to cut through your parking lot for convenience?

  6. Do all employees wear a visible badge or identification card?

  7. Do your employees work late at night or early in the morning?

What Employers Can Do To Protect Employees:  After conducting a security assessment, employers can take the following steps to protect against potential outside threats to your business and increase employee safety in the workplace:

  1. Ensure the building and parking lot are well lit. Street lights may not provide enough illumination for an employee to see if someone is lurking in the dark.  Adding additional exterior lights and providing a well-lit path for employees to walk from the building to the parking lot will deter attacks on employees.  If employees are arriving at or leaving work before sunrise or after sunset, employers should encourage employees to walk in groups or to consider hiring security to walk employees to and from their cars.

  2. Where appropriate, it may be a good idea to install video surveillance and alarm systems, and to make those systems visible. The presence of a security camera is normally enough to discourage a person from targeting your business.  Employers should determine where the most likely danger zones are (i.e., entrances and exits to the building, the reception area, anywhere money is stored or handed, in the IT server room, and in parking lots) and should install security cameras in especially visible places.

  3. Set strict guidelines for employees handling cash. Employers should limit the amount of cash on hand in registers and post signs stating that employees have no access to safes.  This will likely deter any potential attacks because it will make clear that employees only have a small of amount of money on hand.

  4. If employees are required to travel to different locations throughout their workday, provide those employees with a cell phone and require them to prepare and circulate a daily work plan stating where the employee is set to go for that day and requiring the employee to report to a contact person their location throughout the day.

  5. Encourage employees to report any security vulnerabilities. It is likely that an employee would notice a potential security threat to the building or office before you do.  Instruct employees to report the following: unsecured rooms that contain valuable machinery, equipment, or inventory; lights that need to be replaced; suspicious behavior, workplace bullying or significant changes in a co-worker’s personality; and an employee’s domestic issue that may have already or has the potential to spill into the workplace.

Implement a Workplace Violence Prevention Training Program:  After assessing the potential external threats to your business and taking proactive steps to deter outside attacks, employers should then develop a workplace violence prevention training program and policy specific to your business and provide training to employees to protect employees from violence within the workplace.

First, establish a clear, no-tolerance workplace violence policy.  Often, it is likely the case that a violent employee or customer is not a first-time offender.  Many times, they will display a warning sign or act out on a smaller scale first.  It can be detrimental to your business if these incidents go unnoticed and without consequences.  The policy should clearly state that it applies to all employees, customers, clients, visitors and anyone else who may come into contact with employees.  Further, the policy should provide examples of specific acts or behaviors that will not be tolerated and the consequences of non-compliance with the policy.

Second, train employees on the warning signs of potential workplace violence to stop an incident before it starts.  Potential warning signs of violence may include the following: behavioral changes, including poor job performance; depression or withdrawal; excessive use of drugs or alcohol; violation of company policies; mood swings; overreactions to performance reviews or evaluations; and complaints about unfair treatment.  Employers should designate a person employees can notify to report signs of potential workplace violence.

Third, develop an action plan to handle violence in the workplace and implement workplace violence drills.  Although no one wants to think about the worst-case scenario, it is important that employees are trained on exactly what to do if violence arises in the workplace.  Employees should be told who to report any violent acts to and how to notify the police, how to safely exit the office or building, and where employees should report to once they have exited the building.  Practicing this plan is important; however, it is important to let all employees know that it is just a drill.

Although workplace violence prevention training may not be the most fun or interesting training you provide to your employees, it is likely the most important training you will provide.  Take the time to assess the potential external threats to your workplace and implement a workplace prevention training program and policy to protect against internal workplace violence because no business is safe from workplace violence.


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