Conflict is a fact of life in any workplace. Most of us learn to work through it, peacefully and constructively. But when you factor an unstable personality into the equation, it can be a recipe for dangerous behavior.
Take for instance Wesley Higdon, a press operator who murdered his supervisor and four co-workers at a Kentucky plastics factory in 2008. The trigger? Higdon reportedly had been reprimanded for not wearing his safety goggles and for using his cellphone on the job. (For more, see "Photo Gallery: Deadliest Workplace Shootings.")
Of the 4,383 workers who died on the job last year, 767 were the victims of workplace violence, according to preliminary 2012 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number includes 463 homicides and 225 suicides.
During a breakout session at the 2013 America's Safest Companies Conference in Atlanta, experts urged employers to develop policies and procedures that address workplace violence, terrorist attacks and catastrophic accidents – and sticking to them.
"When we talk about policies and procedures, these are the rules," said Steve Davis, president and CEO of the risk-management consulting firm GRM Inc. "They must be published. They must be trained. And they must be uniformly applied. If you miss one of those three, you're going to cause yourself a problem."
Davis also emphasized the importance of developing contingency plans that address how a company will recover after a catastrophic event such as a workplace shooting.
"Anyone who's experienced this kind of event understands that it's a difficult situation – people don't want to go back in there," Davis said.
Davis outlined a number of steps that firms should take to prepare for and manage the risk of workplace violence and other critical incidents:
- Develop and implement an active-shooter program.
- Establish policies and procedures regarding weapons in the workplace.
- Perform a security-risk assessment of your facilities and operations.
- Get to know your local emergency planning committees and state emergency response committees.
- Participate in or monitor communitywide disaster drills.
Davis advised employers to meet with their local medical and hospital personnel to coordinate their respective emergency response plans.
"What's going to be their response?" Davis asked. "If someone has a gunshot wound, are they going to be treated locally? If there's an explosion, if the terrorism rises above just an active shooter and they've actually blown up a section of the plant, what's going to be the response? Where's the closest burn unit? Where are people going to end up? These kinds of things need to be asked."
Of course, it's one thing to have plans in place. It's quite another to execute those plans in a real-life situation.
That's why Davis emphasized that employers need to drill their plans, evaluate the results, make any necessary adjustments – and drill them some more.
Davis asked if any audience members had participated in a disaster drill that went smoothly. Then he asked them if anyone had taken part in a drill "that went horribly wrong." There were far more hands raised in response to the latter question.
"Unfortunately in real life, that's what can occur," Davis said. "You better have a plan, and you better drill it and you better know what you're going to do."
Preventing and Handling Workplace Violence
As part of a violence-prevention program, companies should develop and publish guidelines that address workplace violence and other threats.
"There are two really important things here: that every employee has the responsibility to report [threats] and to cooperate in investigations, and that employees can be removed from the premises if there are incidents," explained Harley Stock, a forensic psychologist and a managing partner at the Incident Management Group Inc.
A key element of such a program is a workplace response team, which investigates potential threats and determines how to handle them, Stock noted.
The team should be comprised of leaders from EHS, human resources, investigations and security. Other internal and external stakeholders – including supervisors, managers and law enforcement officials – can provide assistance but are not members.
The workplace response team should be notified whenever "there's an event that has the potential to physically or psychologically affect the work environment, personnel or assets," Stock explained. Situations warranting the team's involvement would include:
- An employee carrying or displaying a weapon on the job.
- Incidents of pushing, shoving, hitting or other physical aggression.
- Breaking or destroying property in an aggressive fashion.
- Significant threats of violence.
Stock, who has served as a consultant to the U.S. Secret Service on threats to the president, emphasized that the goals of a violence-prevention plan are to reduce the frequency, severity and impact of any events that can destabilize the workplace – physically or psychologically.
"People threaten because they want to be heard," Stock noted. "And so we have to recognize that the intent of the threat often is to cause psychological impact."