Traditionally, the workplace has been thought of as a safe environment, the place where we often spend more time with our co-workers than our own families.
But that perception changed dramatically on a hot August day in 1986, when a postal worker in Edmund, Okla., walked into the post office with a mailbag containing the usual assortment of sales circulars and utility bills, along with three handguns and 100 rounds of ammunition. Ten minutes later, 17 coworkers were dead, the shooter had committed suicide and a workplace where the greatest danger until that moment was a sore back from lifting a mailbag was now the site of what has become an alarming trend across the country.
According to a study by NIOSH, 1 million workers are assaulted and another 1,000 are murdered each year in the workplace. Most of them aren't the high-profile incidents that make the 6 o'clock news. Everyone remembers Columbine and Oklahoma City, but few recall the Fort Lauderdale beach worker who reacted to his firing by killing five of his co-workers or the refinery worker in Texas who killed his boss, his boss' wife and three other workers because he was having a bad day.
KNOW THE SIGNS
Talk with employees after such an incident and they almost always will share a similar observation of the killer they may have worked side-by-side with for years: “There was something that didn't seem right” about him or her.
Chances are what that worker noticed were warning signs of a mental and/or physical short-circuit, which could include:
- Making verbal or physical threats
- Unexpected mood shifts
- Defensive and hostile attitudes
- Bouts of depression
- Suicide threats
- Being obsessed with weapons or carrying a weapon.
Once employers recognize the warning signs of impending workplace violence and understand the potential triggers — domestic problems, drug and alcohol abuse, termination or disciplinary actions — they need to put a plan into place to protect their employees.
Any plan should begin with educating employees, the people most likely to interact on a day-to-day basis with a potentially hostile coworker. Recognizing the red flags is a good start. But employees also need training to take their observations a step further.
If an employee notices a co-worker acting strangely, which may include some form of a verbal or physical threat against themselves or someone else in their workplace, it immediately should be reported to a supervisor, no matter how innocent it might seem.
It's the employer's responsibility to protect its employees, not only from coworkers, but also from non-employees, such as spouses or disgruntled customers.
Companies need to create written policies stressing zero tolerance for workplace violence. This means no violence and no threats, even in a joking manner. Pre-employment screening and preventive measures such as background checks should be an integral part of the hiring process.
PLANS REDUCE RISK
Putting a plan into place not only helps create a safer environment for employees, but it also minimizes workers' compensation risks. While the workers' compensation costs arising as a result of workplace violence can be significant, traditionally, employers have been protected from lawsuits, particularly if the violence could not have been reasonably predicted. However, courts increasingly are awarding settlements against employers due to negligence on their part in preventing acts of workplace violence.
A good example is the case in which the management of a Florida bank cut a guard position even though it had prior knowledge that one of its employees was being harassed by someone coming into the bank. The employee even pleaded with her employer not to eliminate the guard position, as she feared for her life. The company dismissed the guard nonetheless, and shortly thereafter the teller was shot and killed by the harassing person.
Because the court ruled that the employer knowingly created an unsafe work environment by eliminating the guard's position, the teller's family not only received workers' compensation benefits, they successfully sued the employer in a general liability suit that cost the company a hefty settlement (and certainly more than they saved by eliminating the guard's salary).
Employers should be aware that the adjudication system for workers' compensation nationwide is becoming more and more liberal in its interpretation of the “exclusive remedy” afforded to the employee injured on the job and the degree of negligence it takes to open the door for the injured employee to pursue an employer's liability claim. This particularly is true if it is known there was any form of notice or warning given (internal or external) and the company did not react properly to protect its employees.
Business owners no longer can ignore or pretend they didn't know when a tragedy occurs, because the ramifications could be severe. Beyond the loss of life and extreme emotional toll, workplace violence can generate significant legal costs. The National Safe Workplace Institute estimates that the average cost to employers of a single episode of workplace violence can amount to $250,000 in lost work time and other expenses. But that is just the tip of the legal iceberg.
A case in California illustrates the legal impact of workplace violence on employers. On Aug. 3, 1990, a 20-year-old woman was stabbed to death by a coworker at a winery where they both were employed. The assailant had been fired from previous jobs due to poor work habits. He also had a criminal record indicating that he was a dangerous person, but the temporary agency that assigned him to the winery allegedly failed to check his work references. A jury awarded the victim's survivors $5.5 million in damages against the temporary agency that had hired her murderer.
Employers always need to be aware and proactive when it comes to potentially unsafe conditions in their workplace. If they ignore the warning signs and there is a resulting incident of an employee being harmed or worse, aside from a workers' compensation claim, there also could a be much more expensive employer's liability claim looming on the horizon.
Teresa A. Long is director of injury management strategies for the Institute of WorkComp Professionals in Asheville, N.C., the largest network of workers' compensation professionals in the nation. Teresa was claims manager for 14 years for Walt Disney World and later was vice president of risk management for Sarasota, Fla.-based Unisource Administrators Inc. She can be contacted at 828-274-0959 and [email protected].