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Published: 2008-03-26

Train Supervisors on Preventing Workplace Violence



Workplace violence has significantly escalated to the point where management needs to include a program on preventing, recognizing and resolving workplace violence. It is no longer a potential. There are real numbers.

Nearly two million American workers per year are victims of physical attack at their workplace. Based upon a 1993 study published by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co., Fear and Violence in the Workplace, an additional six million workers were threatened, 16 million were harassed, and between July 1992 and July 1993, nearly one in four workers was reported to have been harassed, threatened or attacked on the job. The National Safe Workplace Institute predicted that workplace violence represents a minimum cost to business of $4.3 billion per year with an average incident cost of nearly $250,000. Its study, entitled The Breaking Point, was published in September 1993.

In terms of human suffering, lives lost and productivity degraded, workplace violence is imposing significant costs on employers, and the courts are starting to hold employers liable for failing to intervene at the workplace. Legal theories against employers include negligent hiring (failure to conduct criminal or assault background checks), negligent supervision or training and negligent retention of violent workers beyond the point of employer knowledge of such a propensity. The impact of 9/11 seems to be spreading to workplaces. And it's not just with guns as weapons. Workplace violence can include such other acting out of violent impulses such as stalking a coworker, slashing tires or damaging property, touching coworkers in unwelcome ways, shouting or otherwise intimidating coworkers.

Witness some recent cases. One of the most notable is that of Christina Appleton, a 20-year-old worker in California stabbed to death by a coworker at the entrance of her winery workplace. The coworker had been fired because of bad work habits. He apparently had a criminal record indicating he was a violent person, but the temporary manpower agency that assigned him to the winery allegedly failed to check his references or background. A California jury awarded $5.5 million in damages against the temporary agency employer. Recently, a Florida construction laborer was sentenced to two life prison terms for the 2001 machine-gun shooting deaths of two coworkers he thought had urinated in his drinking water.

In the case of USS-POSCO Industries v. Ezell Edwards, the California Court ofAppeals upheld an injunction against anemployee who reportedly made a threatagainst his supervisor who asked him towear safety glasses, and then followed upwith a warning about Edwards not wearinghis safety glasses later in the day.("You know what time I get off. You knowwhere the parking lot is, and you knowwhat time I'll be out there. We'll just goout there and take care of this.") We nowhave the prospect of needing restrainingorders in the workplace.

Management, first-line supervisors and lead persons must be able to recognize the early warning signs of workplace violence and its potential. Training should be given to help supervisors recognize the warning signs, document the facts of when they occur and encourage employees to report significant threats or events to the appropriate human resource officials. Procedures should be in place against weapons in the workplace and workplace violence or threats backed up with uniform disciplinary rules and actions.

Supervisors should be made aware that when these issues arise and discussions are conducted, that they should be kept confidential and surfaced to the need-to-know personnel, team or individual. Too many times conversations with supervisors concerning employee misbehavior or work performance are spread to others and become grist for the rumor mill. A misbehavior incident report form should be available if employees want to confidentially surface workplace violence threats. For a copy of a sample incident report, contact Ehlke Law Offices. Sensitive investigations of threats or workplace violence should be handled under the attorney client privilege and spearheaded by counsel to preserve confidentiality.

Prompt remedial action is necessary and can frequently turn the situation around positively. These types of problems should not be avoided, rather faced and dealt with directly. Supervisors will have to use their judgment to screen out steam-blowing incidents, language or discussions that might be taken out of context or blown out of proportion. A list of early warning signals should be given to supervisors.

Training in this area should be interactive and have supervisors fill out a hypothetical memorandum documenting such incidents, because this documentation is crucial for later management action and response. As in sexual harassment claim investigation, management should check into workplace violence potential events or threats with swift, effective uniform procedures of investigation and resolution.

Conflicts and violent clashes almost inevitably seem to flow into American workplaces. Although it is impossible to keep all of such conflicts out of the workplace, training can help first-line supervision and management become aware of the signs of potential violence and intervene before it turns into the horrible newspaper tragedies we increasingly read about. Employers need to have a commitment to providing a safe place against workplace violence and focused training would go a long way toward that goal. If you would like a training session or sample materials on this topic, contact Ehlke Law Offices.