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Tragic Act of Workplace Violence Puts Spotlight on Safety

Published Thursday, February 28, 2019
by Gail Cecchettini Whaley, Esq.

Safety management graphThe tragic shooting at the Henry Pratt Company in Illinois last month has put workplace violence back in the spotlight. When an employee learned he was being fired from his job, he began shooting. He killed five company employees within five minutes, including the HR manager, an HR intern (on his first day on the job), the plant manager, a mold operator, and a stockroom/forklift employee. Five responding police officers were also shot and wounded.

This is a horrific tragedy. For those in management and/or human resource positions, the incident certainly strikes a chord of fear. Responding to an active threat is obviously crucial, but preparation is imperative to prevent acts of violence and to be able to respond quickly if an incident occurs. Certainly, not every situation can be prevented—however, there are some important steps employers can take.

1. Create Effective Workplace IIPP Policies

California companies are required to create an effective injury and illness prevention program, which contain a general plan to keep the workforce free from work-related injuries and illnesses’. This includes protecting employees from threats of violence in the workplace.

State law requires employers to protect workers from all sorts of workplace violence. The threats might not be internal, from employees themselves, but can come from any member of the public allowed into your workplace, such as customers, vendors or visitors.

2. Create a Workplace Violence Policy

Your company policy should be clear and included in your employee handbook and other documents that all employees receive. Your policy should state that any violence and/or threats of violence will not be tolerated. This would include any type of aggressive act, threat, intimidation, and bullying. Your policy should clearly state that threats of violence will be treated the same as actual acts of violence and that employees will be disciplined for any threat, including termination.

3. Prohibit Weapons in the Workplace

Make sure your company has a zero tolerance policy for any type of weapon in the workplace or on company property.

4. Take All Concerns of Violence Seriously

One of the most important things a company can do is to encourage employees to come forth with any suspicions or concerns they have in the workplace, even those that may seem trivial. Supervisors should be obligated to report any act or threat of violence.

When and if an employee does come forward with concerns of workplace violence, don’t treat the information lightly. Consider an anonymous tip line in addition to your open door policy, to encourage reporting.

5. Get Restraining Orders When Necessary

It is sometimes necessary to get a restraining order to protect your workers against a former employee or other non-employees who come into your workplace.

Employers can seek restraining orders under the California Code of Civil Procedure sec. 527.8 when there is a credible threat of workplace violence.

6. Check the Environment

Address the physical work areas to make them more secure. If there's a need for better lighting, video surveillance, alarm systems, security guards and/or electronic key cards, now is the time to make these improvements.

7. Monitor Tough Situations

Certain work environments may cause employees to feel more disgruntled and isolated: inconsistent employee discipline, poor workplace morale, top-down management with no room for input, favoritism, bias, and harassment.

Foster professionalism and respect in the workplace to keep the lines of communication open. Administer discipline consistently and impartially so employees trust management and know that everyone is expected to follow the rules. Offer opportunities to learn and grow in a position.

When an employee receives disciplined for performance issues, keep an especially watchful eye out for potential triggers of violence.

8. Watch Out for Signs

Here are some potential warning signs:

√ Poor work relationships/personality conflicts
√ Grudges
√ Hypersensitivity to criticism
√ Substance abuse
√ Disregard for policies/practices
√ Poor judgment
√ Sub-par performance
√ Angry outbursts/belligerence 
√ Marked changes in personal grooming habits
√ Unusual/changed behavior 
√ Serious stress in the employee's personal life 
√ Continual excuses/blame 
√ Low tolerance for change
√ Despair/depression
√ Attendance problems 
√ Fascination with/acquisition of weapons
√ Interest in violent events
√ Threats

The FBI has good information on strategies for workplace violence prevention at work. OSHA has additional helpful resources. Cal/OSHA already has rules relating to preventing workplace violence in the health care industry and is considering more specific standards for all California industries. We will keep you aware of any new developments in this area.

Do all that you can to keep your employees safe in the workplace!

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