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Responding to a workplace shooting or other violence starts with prevention.

August 24th, 2012  |  Lorene Park

Today, a gunman fatally shot a former coworker outside the Empire State Building after being laid off from a company located in that building. Based on this and similar headlines, the public seems ready to take steps to prevent such violence from happening to them. In the wake of the shooting at the theater in Aurora, Colorado, a workplace safety video produced by the city of Houston titled “Run. Hide. Fight.” has gone viral. The video shows employees following (or not) much of the advice detailed in a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) booklet on how to respond to an active shooter.

While it is good to prepare employees for what to do in the case of a shooting, workplace violence encompasses a much wider range of negative behaviors that cause harm, increase stress, and lower productivity. Despite the highly publicized nature of murders, shootings and stabbings account for only a small percent of workplace violence. Employers should therefore create a violence prevention program addressing violence generally. Such a program would not only help ensure a safe workplace, but could evidence the employer’s commitment to safety and lower the risk of liability in the event of a violent incident.

Prevention — training, watching for warning signs.

Employees and managers should be trained on awareness of violence, recognizing and reporting potentially violent employees and methods to prevent or diffuse hostile situations. The first step is to recognize that using a weapon to cause physical harm is not the only type of workplace violence. Violence includes:

  • Verbal threats (including veiled threats like “you haven’t seen the last of me”)
  • Acts of aggression, menacing gestures, brandishing of weapons
  • Attempts at intimidation or coercion
  • Verbal or physical harassment or abuse (including domestic abuse, which can spill over into the workplace)
  • Stalking
  • Disorderly conduct and fistfights (even horseplay can become too aggressive and should be prohibited in the workplace)

In addition, individuals do not usually just “snap,” and there are often signs which, if recognized, could lead to preventative action. Some signs to train supervisors and employees to watch for include:

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Unexplained increase in absences
  • Decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene
  • Depression, mood swings, suicidal comments
  • Talk of problems at home
  • Unsolicited comments about firearms or other weapons
  • Signs of domestic abuse (unexplained injuries; attempts to conceal injuries; frequent calls or visits from partner; overly controlling behavior by a partner)

Train managers and employees to watch for these signs and to report them. In addition, managers should be trained that workplace stress and the perception of unequal treatment can lead to workplace violence. Implementing policies requiring fair treatment reduces the likelihood of violence and has the added benefit of increasing morale.

Security measures.

Aside from training staff, employers should take security measures to prevent workplace violence such as providing sufficient lighting at entrances and in parking lots; requiring photo ID badges to enter the building; using metal detectors or cameras; prohibiting weapons; and encouraging employees to be aware of their surroundings, including the nearest exits. If an employee is experiencing domestic violence, consider added security to prevent the problem from spilling into the workplace. Measures could include screening visitors more closely, screening calls, changing the employee’s office location or hours, and providing an escort to and from the parking lot.

Employers should also have procedures in place for how warning signs, threats of violence, and violent behaviors can be reported and should train supervisors and employees on the procedures. Of course, it should go without saying that all reports should be promptly investigated. If necessary, get local law enforcement involved and consider legal measures. For example, employers can help employees obtain protective orders to keep potentially dangerous persons at a distance.

Response — escape, hide, warn others, call law enforcement.

In addition, train supervisors and employees on how to respond to a violent incident. In many cases, the response will involve finding the nearest exit and ensuring one’s own immediate safety before calling for help. For example, in the DHS booklet and poster the DHS instructs people to respond to a shooting first by trying to escape, leaving personal belongings behind.  If escape is not possible, the DHS suggests hiding behind something that might provide protection but that will not trap you, being sure to turn off your cell phone and trying to remain quiet. As a last resort, the DHS suggests that if you are in imminent danger, you are more likely to survive if you attempt to incapacitate the shooter by acting aggressively, improvising weapons and committing to your actions.

Once safety is assured, employees should call 911 and stop others from entering the danger zone. It may be a good idea for everyone to know a “code word” to use to signal trouble in the workplace. The DHS also encourages employers to run drills for employees to practice the measures that might one day save theirs and others’ lives. By taking these actions, employers can help ensure the safety of their workers. They can also show they are committed to workplace safety and help minimize the potential for liability in the event that a violent incident occurs.