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There was a time in our history when workplace injuries were limited to occupational accidents, slip and falls and repetitive motion injuries. Forget the garden variety injuries, when it comes to workplace violence this is an iceberg and you’re the Titanic!
In America alone, some 2 million workers are victims of workplace violence each year and the upward trend seems to continue. All too often we hear disturbing news reports of workplace violence. We hear of disturbed workers that commit violent acts in their own workplace or workers who are assaulted in their workplace by those they serve. Workplace violence can strike anywhere, and absolutely no one is immune. There are however some workers who are at increased risk. Among them are workers who exchange money with the public; deliver passengers, goods, or services; or work alone or in small groups, during late night or early morning hours, in high-crime areas, or in community settings and homes where they have extensive contact with the public. This group includes health-care and social service workers such as physicians, visiting nurses, psychiatric evaluators, and probation officers; community workers such as gas and water utility employees, phone and cable TV installers, and postal workers, retail workers, and taxi drivers.
Corporations are faced with taking every precaution to create a safe work environment, which includes providing a physically safe environment, establishing hiring practices that minimize the risk of hiring those prone to violence and addressing any psychological or environmental factors that could lead to workplace violence. Additionally, there is the practical concern of liability. Employers face an ever widening potential for liability including negligent hiring, negligent supervision, violation of OSHA regulations to provide a safe workplace, failure to document acts of violence and failure to follow a progressive disciplinary program. If an employee is injured as a result of workplace violence, the employer will also be liable under workers compensation. Employees could also wage personal lawsuits against the employer.
In the case of Smith v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrack) 856 F. 2d 467 (2nd Cir. 1988), an employee shot and destroyed his supervisor’s kneecap after being reprimanded for eating his breakfast away from the property when he was supposed to be at work. The supervisor sued Amtrack for failing to follow its own policy of progressive discipline. The employee who shot him had committed other acts which demonstrated a “propensity towards violence”, yet these prior acts were not recorded. A jury rendered a $3.5 million verdict in favor of the supervisor which was upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
The best defense is a good offense. Employers must establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence against or by their employees. Candidates for employment should go through a pre-hire screening process that includes checking references. When appropriate, criminal background checks are an additional measure which can reduce the employer’s liability.
Workplace violence prevention programs can be incorporated into existing safety programs. The topic should be addressed in employee handbooks and manuals of standard operating procedure. The policy should address the company’s position on workplace violence, and set forth that all claims of violence will be investigated and remedied immediately. Supervisors should be trained to spot changes in behavior, or personality that could lead to violence. There are always warning signs that an employee is becoming unstable.
Employers should also take practical steps to create a safe environment, such as extra lighting, video surveillance, alarm systems, limiting / controlling access to the workplace by using identification badges, electronic keys and security guards. Employers can also conduct safety training for employees teaching them how to protect themselves and how to spot unsafe situations.
Employers should always respond to any reports of threats, violence or weapons in the work place. Supervisors and managers should always conduct investigations and counseling discreetly. If a volatile employee is terminated, have security backup and provide a discreet way for the employee to leave, thereby preserving their dignity. Precaution should also be taken post termination to ensure the safety of the manager, human resources and other employees.
Documentation is critical to reduce the employer’s liability in the event of workplace violence. Any claims of harassment, abuse or violence should be documented along with the action taken. There should be a clear, written policy of progressive discipline to include verbal warnings, written warnings and termination. All managers and supervisors should be trained to fully comply with the policy. Regular performance evaluations should be conducted at scheduled times. Negative reviews should be followed up with written corrective action and a follow-up review. Employers can also be held liable for negative retention, thus documentation of behaviors and action taken is critical.
Even with the rising tide of violence, the workplace remains a relatively safe place. Employers and employees can work together to ensure that it remains that way.
About the Author
Richard A. Hall is founder and President/CEO of LexTech, Inc., a legal information consulting company. Mr. Hall has a unique breadth of experience which has enabled him to meld technology and sophisticated statistical analysis to produce a technology driven analytical model of the practice of law. As a busy civil trial attorney, he was responsible for the design and implementation of a LAN based litigation database and fully automated document production system for a mid-sized civil defense firm. He developed a task based billing model built on extensive statistical analysis of hundreds of litigated civil matters. In 1994, Mr. Hall invented linguistic modeling software which automatically reads, applies budget codes, budget codes and analyzes legal bill content. He also served as California Director and lecturer for a nationwide bar review. Mr. Hall continues to practice law and perform pro bono services for several Northern California judicial districts.
LexTech provides corporate and public sector legal managers a cohesive suite of tools, professional services, and educational offerings to Manage the Business of Law. http://www.lextech.us.
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2006-08-28 22:01:38 in Employee Articles