A common workplace joke about a disgruntled co-worker might sound something like this:
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends these tips to protect workers against violence on the job:
1. Develop a workplace violence prevention program: The program should include a review and assessment of the four potential threats of violence: strangers, customers, co-workers and partners/family members.
2. Keep a written workplace violence prevention policy statement: A written policy should include encouragement for employee participation in the design and implementation of its violence prevention programs, a clear statement that the employer will not tolerate violence at work, a commitment to apply the policy fairly to all employees and requirements for prompt attention, a demand for accurate reporting of violent incidents and a commitment not to discriminate against victims.
3. Maintain a threat assessment team: The team should include senior management, employee representatives, building operations personnel and human resources. The team should assess the vulnerability to workplace violence and develop preventive actions as well as implementing employee-training programs and response plans.
4. Employee training and education: All employees should be taught techniques for spotting potentially violent situation, proper use of security hardware, responses to incidents including emergency and hostage situation, procedures for reporting, investigating and documenting violent incidents, safety in traveling and methods for handling cash.
“For sure, Joe will be the one coming into work with a gun.”
That is typically followed by a co-worker’s snarky reply, “That’s a workers’ comp claim, right?”
Gallows humor aside, workplace violence is covered under an employer’s workers’ compensation insurance as a general rule.
Shooting sprees in the workplace may get a lot of media attention but are rare, according the Federal Bureau of Investigations. However, the FBI’s statistics show 12 percent of violent crimes reported in the United States, including homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, occurs at or are related to the workplace.
Employees who face injury or death from a co-worker at work are covered by the “exclusive remedy” provisions of the federally regulated program. The provision gives employees an immediate remedy for their injuries but the provision also limits the employer’s liability.
Laws and court rulings on worker’s compensation vary by state, but in many cases victims do have avenues to sue their employer for additional compensation.
In Florida, the courts ruled that a teacher was allowed to sue the school district after a student that school administrators knew to be violent attacked her. But in Mississippi, a federal appeals judge ruled that a 2003 shooting at a Lockheed Martin plant was not race-related and it was strictly a work-related shooting. In that case, victims and families were limited to workers’ compensation claims of $150,000 each.
Andrew Terrell, a Falls Church, Va. attorney, says business owners and companies need to work with their insurance insurers to make sure they are carrying enough workers’ compensation insurance as well as general liability insurance.
Terrell often defends general liability insurance insurers against workplace violence claims. While general liability insurance covers accidents outside of an employers’ building, that defense may not always be enough to protect businesses against lawsuits.
“These are tragic situations so the courts will want to find a way to compensate the victims and their survivors,” Terrell says.
In addition to making sure the business carries enough insurance, employers must be up-to-date and comprehensive on its employee policies, says Paul Harvey, associate professor for the Whittemore School of Business at the University of New Hampshire.
“It’s a little hard to defend accusations of promoting aggressive, hostile work environments if you’re policies are not in line with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations,” Harvey says.
Harvey explains that there is not one single answer to solving and preventing workplace violence but there are two areas –individual traits of employees and the work environment — where managers can try to minimize the risk of a situation developing.
As the recession along with its low job growth and lay-offs continue, workplace stress is sure to increase.
“Offering employee counseling and having conflict resolution policies in place are things to show you are making a good faith effort to provide a safe working environment,” Harvey says. “Also, is there stress that your employees are under that doesn’t need to be there? Look at ways you can lower those stress levels.”
Screening job candidates for signs of hostile behavior is also important, Harvey said.
Employees with these characteristics typically blame others for their problems and failures, Harvey said. Those employees may not commit workplace violence, but they may create or cause other hazards.
“They still may create issues such as fist fights, throwing objects or otherwise bullying other employees,” Harvey says.
In its research on workplace violence, the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes acknowledges that employers can be caught between federal regulations mandating a safe work environment and equal opportunity hiring rules.
“But managers need to be coached or encouraged to spot people with those kinds of attitudes so they can avoid them,” Harvey adds.
Harvey reminds employers that nothing is foolproof.
“You may be taking all the steps you can but an act of violence can still happen,” Harvey says. “Human behavior is not an exact science.”