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Business Trends: Anger management

Planning for workplace violence could actually prevent it

Close to 5 percent of private industry experiences
    some type of workplace violence.
By Joanne Friedrick
July 01, 2010

In December, a Brooklyn Supreme Court justice sentenced Jingzhi Li to 65 years in prison for the attempted murder of three former co-workers at the Long Li seafood warehouse in January 2008. According to news reports of the incident, Li returned to the warehouse where he had worked until November 2007 on the guise of buying seafood from his one-time employer. Instead, he attacked the owner, manager and another worker with a hammer, striking them in the head, hands or face and leaving them with severe injuries.

Workplace violence takes the lives of approximately 1,000 workers each year, and nearly 2 million workers are victimized yearly, reports the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Nearly 5 percent of private-industry establish ments experience a workplace violence incident over the course of a year, according to the Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention 2005 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while such incidents had a negative impact on one-third of the businesses, just 11 percent changed their workplace safety policy afterwards, and 9 percent continued with no program or policy in place.

Even though violent crime rates have dropped in most U.S. cities, workplace violence has increased, says Dick Sem, a workplace violence consultant and president of Sem Security Management in Trevor, Wis. Worries about the economy, job loss and stress at home can all spill over into the workplace as violence against current or former employers, says Sem.

OSHA classifies workplace violence into four categories: anonymous third-party, in which someone unknown to the person or business commits the violent act; known people, such as customers, clients and visitors; worker-on-worker violence; and domestic violence.

Anonymous violence often occurs during the commission of a crime, such as robbery at a bank or retail establishment. However, within the other categories there have most likely been warning signs of potentially violent behavior that weren't addressed or reported. "The information usually exists," Sem says, "but it isn't reported or managed properly."

Many businesses address workplace violence with a one-page statement buried within the employee handbook. "But that's not a program," says Sem, who recommends a three- pronged approach covering prevention, threat management and response.

Prevention includes both physical and procedural security measures. Many retail establishments use cameras, remote locks and barriers such as counters to keep robbers at bay. Securing doors, especially in areas that can't be seen from a retail floor, is another preventative measure. Using a buddy system for late-night tasks such as handling money or taking out trash is another way to curtail violence.

Training should be part of the procedural response to any attack, says Sem. On the prevention side, instructing managers to work in a respectful manner can cover this. Untrained employees can often invoke or escalate a situation by being confrontational, he adds.

As part of the mitigation or threat management component, Sem urges business owners to get train ing for themselves and employees on how to de-escalate a situation, including how to remove themselves safely from a potentially violent situation.

Background checks for all employees is another means to screen out potentially violent or dishonest workers, says Steven Millwee, president and CEO of SecurTest, a background-screening and workplace-violence consulting firm in Athens, Ga.

Based on research of cases in which he has been involved, Millwee says incidents of internal theft have risen to 62 percent from 10 percent just a few years ago. While the economy may be behind some of this, he says, too often companies aren't screening their workers, only their managers. He recalled a restaurant in which 20 of the 24 people working there had arrest records, including three recently released from prison.

"The average retailer or wholesaler doesn't think they can afford to screen everyone," he says, but it can be as costly, if not more so, to ignore that step.

Millwee recommends basic background checks for all employees, with more intense scrutiny for management.

Employees should know the warning signs of potentially violent behavior and what their response should be, says Sem. In some cases, the person they fear may turn violent could be a supervisor or manager, so he recommends companies have an 800 number for confidential reporting.

Reporting incidents of potential violence is critical, from both a safety standpoint and to guard against future litigation, says Millwee.

"The natural instinct is to think someone is just blowing off steam," he says, so management isn't informed of a minor incident that could be a precursor to a more serious offense.

But by documenting the incident, both internally and with police when appropriate, a business is showing it has taken the proper steps.

Documentation can include calling the police, discussing the incident with employees, securing a trespassing notice against a person making threats and keeping a diary to show what occurred and what actions were taken as a result, says Millwee.

While there are many behaviors that can signal the onset of violence, workers should take particular note if the frequency and intensity of the behavior disrupts the workplace and a person exhibits many of the warning signs, rather than a few. Among the warning signs identified in OSHA materials are crying and sulking, excessive absenteeism or lateness, disregard for authority, poor work quality, overreacting to criticism, failure to acknowledge unsatisfactory work quality, blaming others for mistakes, poor hygiene, social isolation and complaints about unfair treatment. These can be coupled with physical changes that can portend the onset of violence such as sweating, pacing, trembling, rapid breathing, glaring or avoiding eye contact, chanting or loud talking and violating personal space.

Millwee says threats of violence fall into three categories: direct, conditional and veiled. Direct threats involve using the person's name and specifying what will happen, such as "Bob, I'm going to kill you." The conditional threat is similar, but is usually tied to another action: "Bob, if you don't stop bothering me, I'm going to hurt you." In a veiled threat, the person talks about the act of violence indirectly: "One of these days, someone at this company is going to hurt someone, and it just might be me."

Dealing with veiled threats from the outset, says Millwee, can mitigate more violent acts down the road. While the usual response is to want to fire them for the problems they've caused, Millwee says coming to a settlement with troubled employees gets them out safely and may prevent more costly problems in the long run.

Finally, says Sem, it's important to have a response plan. "In the worst case, you want to be able to keep people as safe as possible," 
he says. Like emergency planning for a 
natural disaster, workplace violence should have a similar plan on how to protect individuals and communicate an emergency.


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine


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