Companies Can Take Steps To Limit Workplace Violence

An employment lawyer advises companies to review their policies on limiting violence in the workplace in light of the shootings at the Navistar plant outside Chicago.

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The shootings at the Navistar plant in Illinois this week raise employee safety concerns for companies and their staffs. As a result, companies should review their policies on limiting violence in the workplace, a Chicago law firm advised.

Homicide is the second-leading cause of workplace death in the United States. In 1998, for example, there were more than 8,000 serious on-the-job assaults.

"The bad news is that workplace violence is becoming more widespread across a broader range of companies and not-for-profit organizations," said Kathryn Hartrick, a partner with the Chicago law firm of Strickler & Nelson, who advises employers on employment issues, including violence. "However, there is some good news for employers. There are usually warning signs that precede an outbreak of violence in the workplace. As a result, employers can take preventive steps to minimize the chances of assaults and deadly attacks."

According to Hartrick, there are three key ingredients that most often contribute to lethal work-related violence:

  • An employee who has a heightened potential for violence. Potentially violent employees may have a substance abuse problem, experience mental illness, or harbor a long-standing perception of being treated unfairly by an employer.
  • A workplace environment that can be a catalyst for an unstable or angry employee. High-pressured, fast-paced, low-paying workplaces can be high-risk environments for employees pre-disposed to violence.
  • A triggering event experienced by a company employees, either on-the-job or at home. This could include the termination or layoff of an employee or a personal setback such as a divorce or the break-up of a relationship.

Other factors, including the lack of social support and the accessibility of guns can also play a role in workplace violence, Hartrick noted.

Although there are no foolproof steps to prevent workplace violence, Hartrick said companies can establish and implement comprehensive workplace violence policies.

Key elements in a strong prevention program, according to Hartrick include:

  • Assessment of high-risk employees and workplace stress factors.
  • Creation of a crisis intervention action plan.
  • Incorporation of violence prevention measures, policies and protocols as part of an employee relations program.
  • Development of a management level committee to monitor ongoing risks of violence.
  • Anticipating volatile behavior when high-risk employees are disciplined, demoted or lose their jobs.

Hartrick said it is important that companies set up clear lines of communication, all along the reporting chain, regarding the monitoring of aberrant employee behavior, including verbal and physical threats.

Employers should implement a zero-tolerance policy toward any kind of violence, with clearly communicated disciplinary measures following any threats.

"Companies should use every tool possible to create a safe working environment," said Hartrick. "Many employers are uncomfortable confronting mental health and personality issues, which are frequently the basis for hostile behavior. But in order to maximize on-the-job safety, management needs to be tuned into the behaviors that are high-risk."

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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