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Anticipating the Unimaginable: Workplace Violence Policies

By Karen R. Glickstein

In recent years, churches, movie theaters, schools, and office buildings have all been affected by headline-grabbing violence.   Not all workplace violence makes the news, however.  The United States Department of Labor defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site,” noting that workplace violence may include anything from  “threats and verbal abuse”  to physical assaults and  homicide.  Workplace violence has its origins in many places, including acts of domestic violence that manifest in the workplace.  While no particular workplace is exempt, OSHA statistics reveal that significant injuries resulting from assault disproportionately affect the health care and social services sectors, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that workplace violence occurs more frequently for individuals employed in the retail, transportation and protective service occupations.  Overall, nearly 2 million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year. 

Liability for workplace violence can occur in a variety of contexts, including under OSHA’s “general duty” clause, state workers’ compensation laws, and/or general theories of negligence.  Because many states have recently enacted and/or amended their conceal/open carry laws, and others have enacted some type of law specifically addressing the presence of guns at work, employers may want to review work place violence policies to ensure that the policies not only comply with the relevant state and local laws, but also consider providing training and/or drills to insure that workers know how to respond in the event of an actual or potential threat of violence.

Workplace violence policies should account for all types of “violence”-ranging from verbal threats to physical assaults to gun violence.  Employers should consider supplementing workplace violence policies with policies designed to reduce tension in the workplace, including “open door” policies to air grievances and EAP counseling programs designed to allow for both counseling and support (recognizing that many instances of workplace violence arise in the context of domestic assault).   Employers should schedule regular drills so employees know how to react in the event a situation does arise.  In addition, workplace violence policies should include, at a minimum, the following provisions:

  • Zero tolerance policy for possession of weapons, threats and/or violence
  • Training for supervisors, HR and executives on how to recognize threats and respond appropriately
  • Compliance with state law conceal/open carry, “parking lot” or other laws relating to the presence of guns in the workplace
  • Anti-discrimination provisions indicating that employees will not be discriminated against due to firearm status, especially in those states where questioning on such factors is prohibited;
  • If an employer leases space,   coordinating  with the owner of the property to comply with relevant laws
  • Postings regarding any prohibitions on possession of firearms in connection with state law
  • Procedures for reporting threats of violence or fear of violence in the workplace
  • Compliance with any state laws relating to protection of domestic violence victims