United States: Workplace Violence Prevention In An Active-Shooter Era

Earlier this month, the country was again rocked by mass shootings—two in less than 24 hours left the cities of Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas reeling. Like so many tragedies before, both shootings occurred at a location that was also a workplace. Although neither was perpetrated by an employee (unlike yet another shooting earlier this summer), employees were affected. They had to think quickly and act fast in the moment, and to deal with the psychological and emotional toll afterwards.

The Department of Labor estimates that approximately two million people will be victims of workplace violence this year. With an employed population of approximately 157 million, this means that about 1 in 80 employees will experience workplace violence—and more will likely be aware of or witness it.

In these circumstances, employers should consider developing or updating their workplace violence prevention (1) strategies, (2) policies, and (3) practices.

Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies. Employers can begin by developing a holistic workplace violence prevention strategy in order to address potential threats. Employers may want to consider not only general threats, but also the type of industry and workplace they have, and whether there are any specific vulnerabilities unique to their workplace. Factors to consider:

  • What threats might your workplace face? Certain employers may want to reduce the amount of valuable inventory and cash on-hand on certain worksites. Professional services and advisory employers may develop security measures that limit customer and client access to certain areas. Health industry employers may want to evaluate whether irate or unstable patients might pose a threat. Some companies might want to evaluate risks at specific times, such as when going through a reorganization or dealing with unpopular or controversial management decisions or anticipated disputes.
  • What outside resources might you need to employ? Depending on your situation, it might be advisable to get help from outside resources, such as psychologist consultants, law enforcement, or attorneys. For example, a psychologist experienced in workplace violence may be able to help you identify certain behaviors showing an escalation, provide advice about whether you have reasonable cause to believe someone is a threat to themselves or other employees, and recommend approaches to communicating with the employee.
  • What legal responsibilities do you have as an employer? Make sure you are aware of your legal obligations. Many, if not most, employers are covered by federal, state, and local laws to provide a safe workplace, and to address threats to varying degrees. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") requires employers to provide a place of employment that is "free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm" and requires that certain injuries must be reported. Other employers may be covered by industry-specific laws. For example, certain hospitals and other healthcare employers may be required to develop violence prevention protocols, in a process that requires the involvement of employees. And, in the current environment, employers may want to go beyond their minimum legal obligations to protect their employees—and their brand.
  • What basic security measures can you employ to prevent the threats you have identified? Depending on the threats you have identified, ideas might include appropriate background checks, better lighting in the parking lot, security guards, secured areas requiring biometric ID access, hidden and easily accessible alarm buttons, etc. However, there are several laws that might limit the use of such security measures, so employers should consult with counsel before implementing them. For example, background checks are subject to federal, state and local fair credit and reporting laws and other "Ban-the Box" laws. Also, in recent years, several jurisdictions have enacted laws that limit the use of biometrics.
  • What is your plan to address threats if they arise? Consider developing a clear, practicable plan for reporting, investigating and addressing each of the threats at issue. If a threat actually arises, you may not have the time or resources you need to devote to addressing it, so a plan that is well-thought-out ahead of time may allow you to de-escalate the threat and potentially save lives.
  • What information is crucial to communicate to employees and/or clients? Consider what your employees need to be aware of and be prepared for, as well as what message you want to send about workplace safety. You should also consider how you will communicate with employees in the event that any of the threats you've identified actually occurs. Similarly, to the extent you've identified any threats that might impact customers or clients, consider what steps you should take ahead of time (or at the time) in terms of both safety and messaging.

Workplace Violence Policy. Once employers have considered their workplace violence prevention strategy, they should consider publishing a workplace violence policy. A workplace violence policy can relay to employees the importance of a safe, violence-free workplace and prohibit any violent or threatening behavior. For example, employers can:

  • List examples of prohibited behavior, e.g., physical injury, threatening remarks, bullying, stalking.
  • Include a strict no weapons at work policy, and address open-carry or concealed-carry weapon laws.
  • State that any employee deemed to exhibit violent or threatening behavior may be disciplined up to, and including termination
  • Summarize the company's plan for addressing threats, such as investigating and taking corrective action.
  • Identify clear reporting channels for employees (and/or clients or vendors) to report suspected or actual threats (e.g. call 911, building security, HR).
  • State that employees who report a threat or suspicion will not be retaliated against.

Workplace Violence Prevention Practices. The types of practices that may be employed are as varied as employers, but best practices may include:

  • Educate your workforce on your workplace violence strategy and policy. Train managers and HR on their role in preventing and responding to threats. Train all employees about the importance of reporting possible threats, and the company's investigation and response process.
  • Designate and train safety employees to assist with evacuations and/or respond to specific threats.
  • Offer first aid training to all employees.
  • Evaluate whether to train on specific threats (e.g., active shooter, domestic violence). Consider using local agencies or law enforcement who may be able to speak from reality and experience and tailor the training to cover increased risks in a particular location. Consider developing an active shooter Emergency Action Plan as recommended by the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Provide wellness and mental health offerings and benefits (not just in the aftermath of a threat, but as a preventive measure for employees).
  • Regularly evaluate and update your prevention strategies, policies, and practices.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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