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Employment Law Notebook

Employers Need a Workplace Violence Plan

Shooting and other violent attacks are unfortunately becoming all too common, and the workplace can also become an unsafe place.  If you don’t yet have a workplace violence plan at your workplace, consider this: An internet search conducted in early August revealed seven separate incidents of workplace shootings in the prior four weeks by current or former employees all across the country.  They occurred in Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alabama, Massachusetts and Virginia.  Fifteen people were killed in these shootings, and six people were injured according to news reports. These numbers this summer are troubling when you consider the fact that in an entire year in 2017, the last year the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracked this, workplace violence caused 807 deaths and 28,790 nonfatal injuries.

What does this mean for the workplace today? Unfortunately, it means that it is more likely than not that an incident of workplace violence with occur at any company regardless of size, purpose or location. Indeed, a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Managers revealed that 48 percent of all Human Resources professionals have had an incident of workplace violent at their organizations, with 25 percent of reporting that such an incident had occurred in the past year. The time to act is now.

What exactly is workplace violence and what can employers do about it?  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.”  Under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, an employer must provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”  The takeaway: employers need to put in place a plan to prevent, prepare for and address it.

Lisa Fried-Grodin, Esq., an employment law attorney at Meyers Fried-Grodin LLP, recently spoke to Human Resource managers and business owners at a Morris County Chamber of Commerce meeting in August 2019 and provided these recommendations:

Know your workforce’s vulnerabilities. Be mindful that according to OSHA, the following employees are more likely to become victims of workplace violence:those who exchange money with the public, interact with volatile, unstable people, work alone, late at night, in isolated areas or in high crime areas, those who provide services or care, and work in a place where alcohol is served, delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents and law enforcement.

Conduct criminal background checks for new hires and reserve the right to conduct them again during employment. Get advice from counsel so such checks are done in compliance with state and federal laws on background checks and avoid discrimination. 

Review the public social media sites of candidates as part of the background check for candidates and of employees (if applicable). Get advice from counsel so such checks are legally compliant.

Develop/enforce a zero-tolerance workplace violence policy and train your workforce on it. Policies should not only address prohibited conduct but also explain the consequences of violating the policy, the procedure to report violations, safety procedures at the company, and steps employees should take in a dangerous/emergency situation.  If your policy prohibits weapons not only in the facility but also in employees’ cars in your parking lot, make sure the state you operate in does not have a parking lot storage law that allows employees to store guns in their cars. New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania do not have such laws.

Train managers to be aware of volatile/threatening behavior and report it.

Put in place building and administrative controls to prevent and address incidents. 

Train Human Resources professionals and managers how to communicate adverse employment decisions to employees in a sensitive manner that communicates the necessary information but does not unnecessarily create an emotionally charged situation.

Train the workforce on how to respond to violent incidents with active shooter or similar training.

Morris County, New Jersey Sheriff James Gannon provided these additional tips at the seminar:

Encourage an atmosphere of “see something say something”.

Contact local and/or county law enforcement professionals before problems occur to help you identify vulnerabilities in your facilities and environment, and provide advice on how best to avoid and address workplace violence and other emergencies before they occur.

Develop a communications plan so employees and managers know who to call when an incident occurs.

Develop a reunification plan addressing how the company will communicate with families of employees in an emergency.

Train human resources professionals to be alert to and act on information they receive about employee behavior that could be threatening or violent.

Inform security and front desk personnel when employees have left the company and collect company ids and keys from separated employees.

Train human resource managers and other supervisors to de-escalate emotionally charged situations at work.

Protect employees who have filed temporary restraining orders against spouses or others. Have security or someone else at the company escort such employees to their vehicles when they leave the worksite

 Meyers Fried-Grodin’s attorneys are available to help employers put in place a plan to keep your workplace safe and comply with your legal obligations.

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