What does it mean to provide a “safe” workplace?

For careful employers, the concept of workplace safety is not limited to preventing accidents (slips, falls, and equipment injuries) that lead to workers’ compensation claims.  Employers must also consider the threat of workplace violence, which usually takes one of three forms:  (1) violence between co-workers; (2) violence between employees and customers; and (3) violence between employees and the general public.  Each industry faces unique challenges in preventing workplace violence.  Let’s consider two examples – a bank and a hospital. The bank is likely to be more concerned with preventing a robbery than the hospital.  On the other hand, the hospital may focus more on protecting employees from potentially violent patients.  In both examples, the careful employer must take reasonable steps to assess and prevent violence against employees.

Employers who fail to adequately safeguard against workplace violence may draw the attention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”).  Last September, OSHA issued an enforcement directive aimed at workplace violence.  OSHA believes employers who fail to prevent workplace violence may violate the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause, which requires employers to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards.  In fact, OSHA recently cited a Maine psychiatric hospital for failing to provide adequate safeguards against workplace violence.

So, what should employers do to help prevent workplace violence?  Here are some steps to consider as part of a comprehensive approach to preventing violence:

  • Implement a violence prevention policy.  A recent study shows that only 30% of employers have a violence prevention policy.  A good policy will notify employees that engaging in workplace violence may result in their termination.  The policy should also provide specific instructions for reporting suspected threats.
  • Investigate potential threats.  Employer investigations can be a powerful tool to prevent violence.  Employers should consider designating a “go-to” person or department to investigate threats of workplace violence.  This person or department can help ensure that threats are investigated fully and consistently.
  • Conduct background checks, as appropriate.  Employers can use background checks to identify applicants with a history of violent criminal behavior.  However, employers should be careful to use the same background investigation for all applicants for similar positions.  This approach will help avoid a claim that the employer used the background checks for the purpose of screening out members of specific protected classes.
  • Consider legal action.  In some states, employers have legal remedies to protect employees from a credible threat of violence.  For example, Georgia law allows an employer to seek a temporary restraining order (TRO) from an appropriate court on behalf of an employee who has suffered unlawful violence or a credible threat of violence.  The violence may be from any individual, including a spouse or family member.

Every employer needs to recognize and respond to the particular risks in its unique workplace.  The steps listed above may be helpful as part of a broader violence prevention plan that is aimed at preventing specific, recognized risks of violence in the workplace.

We would like to hear from you on this issue.  What steps do you take to prevent violence in your workplace?  Leave a comment and let us know.