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Preventing Violence in the Workplace: Taking an Active Role in the Process before OSHA Does

by Martin Salcedo, Esq. - The Human Equation on 8/10/2011
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The death of one employee and the wounding of another, both allegedly caused by a client of an addiction treatment facility, caught the attention of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA cited the treatment facility with a serious violation for failing to adhere to the Occupational Safety & Health Act's (Act) general duty clause, which provides that all employers have a general duty to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Violence in the workplace certainly falls within this category.

Workplace violence can be defined as "violent acts (including physical assaults and threats of assaults) directed toward persons at work or on duty." To help employers in their fight against workplace violence, OSHA's violence prevention guidelines provide recommendations for reducing workplace violence, and OSHA encourages employers to establish violence prevention programs and to track their progress in reducing work-related assaults. Although not every incident can be prevented, adopting practical measures, including those outlined by OSHA can significantly reduce this serious threat to worker safety.

A written program for job safety and security, incorporated into an organization's overall safety and health program, offers an effective approach for larger organizations. Smaller organizations may not need to rely on written or heavily documented programs. Nevertheless, clear goals and objectives to prevent workplace violence are necessary. Employers should communicate information about the prevention program and startup date to all employees.

At a minimum, workplace violence prevention programs should:

  • Create and disseminate a clear policy of zero tolerance for workplace violence, verbal and nonverbal threats and related actions. Ensure that managers, supervisors, coworkers, clients, customers, vendors, patients, visitors, etc. know about this policy.
  • Implement a no-retaliation policy for employees reporting or experiencing workplace violence.
  • Encourage employees to promptly report incidents and suggest ways to reduce or eliminate risks. Require records of incidents to assess risk and measure progress.
  • Outline a comprehensive plan for maintaining security in the workplace, including establishing a liaison with law enforcement representatives and others who can provide guidance and assistance.
  • Assign responsibility and authority for the program to individuals or teams with appropriate training and skills.
  • Affirm management commitment to a worker-supportive environment that highlights the importance of employee safety.
  • Set up a company briefing as part of the initial effort to address issues such as preserving safety, supporting affected employees and facilitating recovery.

Moreover, an effective workplace violence prevention program should include the following main components:

  • Management commitment and employee involvement;
  • Worksite analysis;
  • Hazard prevention and control;
  • Safety and health training; and
  • Recordkeeping and program evaluation.

Since absolute prevention of workplace violence may not be possible, an employer's post-incident response and evaluation are essential for an effective prevention program, particularly because employees who are victimized personally or are traumatized by witnessing a workplace violence incident may experience various consequences in addition to any actual physical injuries, such as:

  • Short- and long-term psychological trauma;
  • Fear of returning to work;
  • Changes in relationships with coworkers and family;
  • Feelings of incompetence, guilt, powerlessness; and
  • Fear of criticism by supervisors or managers.

An effective violence prevention program also involves training the workforce to understand the concept of "universal precautions for violence"— that is, that violence should be expected but can be avoided or mitigated through preparation. Frequent training also can reduce the likelihood of being assaulted. The training program should involve all employees, including supervisors and managers, and new and reassigned employees should receive an initial orientation before being assigned their job duties.

Effective training programs should involve role playing, simulations and drills, and may include management of assaultive behavior, professional assault-response training, police assault-avoidance programs or personal safety training such as how to prevent and avoid assaults. A combination of training programs may be used, depending on the severity of the risk. Employees should be trained annually; however, some situations, such as those involving larger workforces or greater risks, may necessitate more frequent training programs.

Though customization may be necessary, training should cover topics such as:

  • The workplace violence prevention policy;
  • Risk factors that cause or contribute to assaults;
  • Early recognition of escalating behavior or recognition of warning signs or situations that may lead to assaults;
  • Ways to prevent or diffuse volatile situations or aggressive behavior, manage anger and appropriately use medications as chemical restraints;
  • A standard response action plan for violent situations, including the availability of assistance, response to alarm systems and communication procedures;
  • Progressive behavior control methods and safe methods to apply restraints;
  • The location and operation of safety devices such as alarm systems, along with the required maintenance schedules and procedures;
  • Ways to protect oneself and coworkers, including use of the "buddy system;"
  • Policies and procedures for reporting and recordkeeping;
  • Information on multicultural diversity to increase staff sensitivity to racial and ethnic issues and differences; and
  • Policies and procedures for obtaining medical care, counseling, workers' compensation or legal assistance following an incidence of workplace violence.

A successful violence prevention program must undergo routine reviews to evaluate its success. Managers, supervisors, and employees should periodically reevaluate policies and procedures to identify deficiencies. The processes involved in an evaluation should include:

  • Establishing a uniform violence reporting system and regular review of reports;
  • Reviewing reports and minutes from staff meetings on safety and security issues;
  • Analyzing trends and rates in illnesses, injuries or fatalities caused by violence;
  • Measuring improvement based on lowering the frequency and severity of workplace violence;
  • Keeping abreast of new strategies available to deal with violence in the health care and social service fields as they develop;
  • Surveying employees periodically to learn if they experience hostile situations concerning the medical treatment they provide;
  • Complying with OSHA and State requirements for recording and reporting deaths, injuries and illnesses; and
  • Requesting periodic law enforcement or outside consultant review of the worksite for recommendations on improving employee safety.

The fear of an OSHA citation should not be the primary motivation for implementing and enforcing a violence prevention program in the workplace. Many of OSHA's advisory guidelines provide employers with a practical and flexible approach to creating and maintaining a safe and healthful working environment. Moreover, since the existence of such a work environment typically results in a more harmonious and productive workforce, employers who take workplace violence prevention seriously may notice a positive change in their bottom line.

If you would like to learn more about preventing Violence in the workplace, click here.

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