By: Geoffrey S. Pope Published: October 2020

Preventing Workplace Violence: An Essential Element of Your Safety Program

Even before the pandemic, there had been a continuing uptick in workplace violence.  NIOSH defines workplace violence as “physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the workplace setting.”  Others define it more broadly, to include harassment, profanity, intimidation, and even the transmission of hostile text  messages, as well as offsite incidents arising from on-the-job situations.

In recent years, homicides have accounted for roughly 9 percent of U.S. workplace fatalities.  On construction sites, in addition to violent interactions between coworkers (or between workers and supervisors) such acts may also involve bystanders, clients, visitors to the site, persons engaging in theft of equipment or materials or other crimes at the site, and family members and partners (or former partners) of employees.  Now, because of the pandemic, we are seeing increases in job losses, financial stresses, crimes against persons and property, substance abuse, depression, marital breakdowns, suicides, and physical ailments, all of which presage likely increases in workplace violence.  While no one knows when, or if, the worst effects of the pandemic might recede, few expect a full economic and social recovery in the near term.  Even if coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations continue to decrease, the economic and psychological ill effects of what we have been experiencing may prove to be long-lasting.

Factors contributing to workplace violence in construction that pre-dated the pandemic included the openness of many jobsites, the value of equipment, materials (and, often, cash) kept onsite, frequent interactions between construction employees and “civilians,” and the high turnover of personnel.

Perhaps because OSHA lacks specific construction standards addressing workplace violence, the subject is often treated sketchily, or not at all, in companies’ safety planning and training.

The OSH Act’s General Duty Clause subjects employers to being cited for failure to provide a workplace free from known hazards, of kinds recognized in the industry.  Workplace violence is such a hazard, and if you fail to address it in your safety program, you risk not only potential OSHA citations under the General Duty clause, but possible liability in  a lawsuit, if someone is injured or killed in an occurrence on your jobsite (or arising from a workplace situation).

While space does not allow any attempt to spell out here a full “violence prevention” module for your safety program, I can offer some general ideas to incorporate in your approach to the subject.

First, perhaps, is that the existence and the severity of the risk must be confronted squarely.  The unacceptability not only of overt assault, but abusive conduct, must be made known to all.  Your employees, therefore, should be instructed to report all incidents (including verbal abuse or harassment).

It is important that supervisors be forbidden to look the other way.  Even relatively minor altercations, or instances of verbal abuse (as well as all reported incidents or threats) should become the subject of a conversation between supervisory personnel and each person involved, and appropriate disciplinary action taken.  The foregoing must be documented, and kept on file.

While obviously not every four-letter exchange between construction workers should be grounds for discipline, where things become abusive, or escalate to blows being struck, management should not fail to take action, based on a belief that a confrontation “was no big deal, just a few punches were thrown, no one got hurt.”  That not only sends a bad message, but if, later, one of the combatants shoots the other one dead, chances are good that the incident you disregarded as trivial will have been recorded on a surveillance camera (or someone’s cell phone) and will be shown to you at your deposition, in a lawsuit by the decedent’s estate.

Another basic concept is that safety-from-violence tactics are best devised with due consideration to the peculiarities of the individual job.  Comprehensive 24/7 video surveillance (and the use of “pan, tilt and zoom” cameras) which are excellent tools in curbing thefts of equipment and materials from the site can double as a deterrent to violence, as well as to identify the perpetrators.

Paying employees their wages in cash is a dubious practice, among other things as it may arouse suspicions of conduct violating various wage, tax, and immigration laws.  It’s probably a bad idea, also, as if workers are paid in cash, it could easily come to the attention of potential robbers that cash is kept on site, with “criminal intent” workplace violence (and loss of funds) resulting.

Another sub-species of workplace violence or harassment is directed chiefly at women, and typically involves a stalker (usually a jilted boyfriend, estranged or former spouse) showing up at the jobsite (often with a weapon) intending intimidation or harm.  Thwarting such an attack is especially challenging, if the potential danger is unknown to the employer — and, obviously, it is an extremely sensitive issue, that many affected women will be hesitant to disclose.

One thing you should do whenever practicable is to restrict ingress to the jobsite, and have security personnel refuse entry to anyone lacking proper credentials.

Another thing you can do is to train all employees that such incidents occur, and that while employees’ privacy is important, so too is the safety of not only those who might be potential targets of such an attack, but everyone present on the jobsite, should one occur.  Employees can be advised that if they are threatened, or become aware of a potential danger of this kind, they are encouraged to seek the intervention of law enforcement directly, or to inform management discreetly of the circumstances, and discuss protective measures to be taken.  Among other possibilities, such measures might include providing an escort to and from the parking area, posting a photo of the stalker in the reception area and directing personnel to summon security or the police should the individual appear, minimizing the work time the employee spends in an isolated area, alone, or at night, etc.  Here, too, video surveillance, with expansive coverage and high visibility, should help to deter such attacks.

More basic measures you need to implement to prevent workplace violence include designating individuals responsible to contact police in the event of an “active shooter” or similar crisis (and to whom any such crisis should be reported), devising and training in evacuation procedures and emergency escape routes, and identifying whose job it is, following any evacuation, to account for all personnel.

You can find dozens of instructional packages online, many of which can be purchased for as little as $30 per license, that afford training on this subject, which should also be addressed in toolbox talks.

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