A recent survey of workplace violence highlighted some interesting facts.
The post-Christmas office shootings in Wakefield, Massachusetts and the recent shootings at a truck engine plant in Melrose Park, Illinois served as further grim reminders of the constant threat of workplace violence. Although these are both worst case scenarios, such events highlight a prevalent problem. Each year, workplace violence costs employers billions of dollars, with no signs of the problem abating. At the same time, the definition of workplace violence is broadening to include homicides, physical attacks, rapes, aggravated and other assaults, threats, intimidations, coercions, all forms of harassment and any other act that creates a hostile environment. Harassment is the leading form of on-the-job violence; 16 million workers suffer each year. In addition to the sizeable financial toll on companies, employees witnessing violent acts in the workplace report increased levels of stress and lower morale, which in turn may lead to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism and turnover.
A workplace violence survey and white paper, conducted by the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS) and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), has shown, however, that fewer organisations have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention and security policy in place than might be expected. Based on its findings, the ASSE is urging employers to review their policies and conduct a risk assessment and vulnerability audit as soon as possible.
Co-author, Ruth Unks, remarks, “Risk managers cannot ignore the human and financial costs of workplace violence. This survey and white paper can be a useful tool and provide a context for risk managers to raise the issues within their organisations.”
Not before time, considering that most respondents admitted they had not conducted a formal workplace violence risk assessment. Only half the organisations surveyed have implemented programs to address workplace violence by improved hiring techniques, security measures and no-weapons policies.
Yet this is a crucially important matter. As pointed out in the survey, employers have a general duty to “furnish to each employee, employment and a place of employment that is free from recognised hazards that are causing, or likely to cause, death or serious harm to the employee” under federal and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Under the theory of respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously liable for any actions committed by its employees within the scope of their employment. Which means the employer can be held liable even if it did nothing wrong. The employer is liable for the employee's actions when working, even if the employee is not acting within company policy.
Employers may also be held liable for failing to provide adequate premises, safety and security measures following notification of a potential danger, and on the grounds of negligent hiring or negligent retention of an employee who has a known propensity for violence.
The US Supreme Court recently rendered an opinion stating that employers are subject to vicarious liability towards a victimised employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate (or successfully higher) authority over the employee. This has greatly increased employers' liability in dealing with workplace violence.
So what can be done about what is patently a major concern? The RIMS/ASSE survey makes various recommendations for officers and directors, human resource managers, risk managers and security professionals to consider when evaluating their vulnerability to workplace violence and in developing policies to minimise the risk of such violence, appropriate to their particular situations and needs.
Officers and directors
Human resource managers
A lot to do, then, but this is an issue which is not going to go away. Granted, workplace violence exposure varies across corporations as this survey highlights, but it makes good business sense to formally address the problem. And the sooner the better.