(Source: Jones Walker LLP by Jane Henican Heidingsfelder and Jacob J. Pritt.)

At an alarming rate, and more often now seen on the news, we are seeing reports of mass shootings and other acts of violence. These incidents affect all aspects of our lives, but they are becoming more prevalent in the workplace. The federal government estimates that two million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year, and that number may continue to grow. Keeping this unfortunate reality in mind, it is important that employers have adequate workplace violence policies to protect their employees.

While there is no specific standard on the issue, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) General Duty Clause requires all employers to provide a safe workplace for employees. This includes taking steps to minimize the threat of workplace violence. Unlike some OSHA standards that apply only to specific industries or types of employers, every employer is required to comply with this obligation, and to do what they can to keep employees safe in the workplace.

OSHA defines workplace violence as “violence or the threat of violence against workers.” Workplace violence ranges from threats and verbal abuse to more serious incidents like physical assault and homicide. As workplace violence becomes more common throughout the country, OSHA is cracking down on employers that fail to take adequate steps to prevent it and protect their employees.

Employers should have a zero-tolerance policy for violence in the workplace. This policy should be in a company’s employee handbook or similar document and should outline the steps the employer is taking to reduce the threat of violence. Of course, it is impossible to fully prevent violence in the workplace, but how an employer responds and the efforts it takes to reduce the risk are crucial. Employers should also train their employees on violence prevention and have plans in place for common workplace violence scenarios.

OSHA recommends employers take the following steps to decrease the threat of workplace violence and maintain a safe and secure workplace:

  • Educate employees on what conduct is not acceptable, and what they should do if they witness workplace violence. This should be part of an employer’s ordinary safety training.
  • Take steps to keep the workplace secure – install video surveillance if necessary, make sure all areas are well lit, and minimize access to the workplace by outsiders without the proper clearances.
  • Limit the amount of cash on hand at a business, and only keep minimal cash in registers during late-night hours.
  • Equip employees with cellphones, handheld alarms, or noise devices. Always make sure you know your employees’ whereabouts and have them keep management updated of their movements.
  • Encourage employees to not enter a location where they feel unsafe. Use a buddy system or escort for employees in potentially dangerous situations, especially at night.
  • If employees must travel to customers’ homes, such as in a home healthcare setting, ensure that employees are aware that they do not have to enter a situation they feel is unsafe or hazardous.
  • Have procedures for employees to notify their supervisor if they feel unsafe or have concerns about potential workplace violence.

If an employee becomes the victim of workplace violence in spite of the steps the employer takes to prevent it, it is important to document the incident, provide prompt medical attention to the employee if necessary, and report incidents to the police immediately. Failure to implement appropriate steps to address the hazards of workplace violence could lead to the issuance of General Duty citations.