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The Time Has Come to Train Supervisors on Preventing Workplace Violence

Workplace violence has significantly escalated to the point where managements need to include a focused 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 Company entitled "Fear and Violence in the Workplace," an additional six million workers were threatened, 16 million were harassed, and between July 1992-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. Their study was entitled "The Breaking Point" published in September 1993.

In terms of human suffering, lives lost, and productivity lost, 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 co-worker, slashing tires or damaging property, touching co-workers in unwelcome ways, shouting or otherwise intimidating co-workers.

Witness some of the recent cases. One of the most notable is that of Christina Appleton, who was a 20-year-old woman worker in California stabbed to death by a co-worker at the entrance of her winery workplace. The co-worker 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 which assigned him to the winery allegedly failed to check his work references or background. A California jury awarded $5.5 million in damages against the temporary agency employer. More recently, a Florida construction laborer was sentenced to two life prison terms for the 2001 machine gun shooting deaths of two co-workers he thought had urinated in his drinking water. In California, in the case of USS-POSCO Industries v. Ezell Edwards, the California Court of Appeals upheld an injunction against an employee who reportedly made a threat against his supervisor who asked him to wear safety glasses, and then followed up with a warning about Mr. Edwards not wearing his safety glasses later in the day. ("You know what time I get off. You know where the parking lot is at, and you know what time I'll be out there. We'll just go out there and take care of this.") We now have the prospect of needing restraining orders in the workplace.

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

Supervision 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 management personnel, team, or individual. All too many times conversations with supervision concerning employee misbehavior or work performance conversation between supervisors are discussed and spread to other supervisors or employees 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, please contact our office or PMA. Sensitive investigations of threats or workplace violence should be handled under the attorney-client privilege and spearheaded by counsel to further preserve confidentiality.

Prompt remedial action is necessary and can frequently turn the situation around positively. These types of problems should not be avoided, but rather encouraged to be 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 seem almost inevitable to flow into American workplaces as they already have. Although it is impossible to keep all of such potential out of the workplaces, training now can help first-line supervision and management to be aware of the signs of potential violence and intervene before it turns into the horrible newspaper tragedies we are reading about ever increasingly. Employers need to have a commitment to providing a safe place against workplace violence and focused training now would go a long way toward that goal. If you would like a training session or sample materials on this topic, please contact our office or PMA Headquarters.

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