All of us are familiar with the occasional news story of a disgruntled worker who inflicts acts of violence on supervisors and co-workers, but I was shocked recently when I learned that, at 17%, on-the-job slayings are second only to motor vehicle crashes as a cause of workplace fatalities, and the leading category of work-related deaths for women.
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It’s true that the statistical odds of any type of fatality in U.S. workplaces are very small, and the chance of a fatality resulting from employee violence is even smaller. But approximately 6,500 people are killed on the job each year for all causes, so it’s worth considering how to further reduce the odds at your facility.
The fundamental cause of undesirable events is the same: We fool ourselves into thinking such things could never happen where we work, and we often ignore behaviors that represent warning signs for an accident or an act of violence. Ignorance remains blissful only until the undesirable event occurs. The nature of prevention requires we anticipate and protect against even the most unlikely of occurrences, especially when the consequences are so severe.
There are things employers and facilities can do to protect against acts of violence, and many of them involve a tremendous amount of common sense. The only real challenge is translating common sense into a plan that everyone knows and understands.
The first step is to determine when acts of violence are more likely to occur. Acts of violence are either internal or external to the operation or facility. Termination of employment is an obvious example of the former. Layoffs, disciplinary actions, plant closings and other events that directly affect employees are other possible triggers.
These internal triggers can be identified, anticipated and planned to a much greater degree than external triggers. For example, termination should always be performed with more than one person in a room or area, never after everyone else has left the facility. When a termination is planned, supervisors and those responsible for security should be advised so if a terminated employee reappears later, their presence can be carefully monitored.
External triggers are much more difficult to control. For example, an angered spouse enters the facility with intent to harm, or a mugger enters or waits outside the facility looking for a victim. The timing of such events can’t be predicted, but their probability may be somewhat predictable. For example, a facility located in a high-crime-rate area is more subject to such acts of violence than other facilities.
There, prudent employers and facilities provide a greater level of security in the form of controlled entrances and exits, lighted exterior areas, gated or fenced parking lots, strict visitor control or even professionally trained security personnel.
Many facilities are located in areas where the need for such security is not apparent, but how do we deal with the angry spouse, customer or other individual bent on causing trouble? The answer is to anticipate, plan and practice how such situations will be dealt with. Facilities with receptionists should develop a plan and train the receptionist to call for help or sound a silent alarm to the police or company manger. Employees should be trained to alert supervisors about unfamiliar persons or visitors in the facility.
These simple techniques are similar to what we are being told regarding potential terrorism. Be aware and vigilant, and if something appears suspicious, report the activity to a supervisor or manager. It’s far better to over-report than to identify and ignore a potential warning sign.
These are simple steps facilities can take to prepare for the unlikely, but terrible consequences of violence in the workplace. Many employers and facilities have trained its supervisors to identify behaviors that precede possible acts of violence and to deal with such persons until help arrives.
Few of us can even imagine what it would be like to experience a work-related fatality in our facilities, but a fatality resulting from an act of violence would be far more tragic. The fact that violence is now the second leading cause of death at work, while tragic and sad, should serve as a wakeup call.