Defusing the Explosive Worker

Proper screening procedures during the hiring process will help keep potentially dangerous individuals out of your workforce.

VIOLENCE has emerged as an important safety and health issue in today's workplaces. Homicide, its most extreme form, is the second-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 709 workplace homicides occurred in 1998, accounting for 12 percent of the total 6,026 fatal work injuries in the United States. OSHA has developed guidelines and recommendations to reduce worker exposures to violence but is not initiating rulemaking at this time.

According to the Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), assaults and threats of violence against Americans at work number almost 2 million a year. The most common type of workplace violent crime was simple assault, with an average of 1.5 million incidents per year. (Simple assault is defined as communicating a threat without actually striking the victim. An example is someone doubling his/her fist and threatening to use it against someone.) There are 396,000 aggravated assaults, 51,000 rapes and sexual assaults, 84,000 robberies, and 1,000 homicides annually, on average.

According to NCVS, retail sales workers were the most numerous victims, 330,000 being attacked each year. Police officers are next, averaging 234,200 officers victimized.

The at-risk rate per 1,000 workers for various occupations, starting with the highest, was: 1) police officers, 306; 2) private security guards, 218; 3) taxi drivers, 184; 4) prison guards, 117; 5) bartenders, 91; 6) mental health professionals, 80; 7) gas station attendants, 79; 8) convenience/liquor store clerks, 68; 9) mental health custodial workers, 63; 10) junior high/middle school teachers, 57; 11) bus drivers, 45; 12) special education teachers, 41; 13) high school teachers, 29; 14) elementary school teachers, 16; and 15) college teachers, 3.

Workplace homicides fell to their lowest level in the past six years in 1997, but they remained the second-leading cause of job-related deaths. Robbery remained the primary motive of job-related homicide, accounting for 85 percent of the deaths. Disputes among co-workers, customers, and clients accounted for approximately one-tenth of the total. Factors that might increase a worker's risk for workplace assault as defined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are: 1) contact with the public; 2) exchange of money; 3) delivery of passengers, goods, or services; 4) having a mobile workplace, such as a taxicab or public cruiser; 5) working with unstable or volatile persons in health care, social services, or criminal justice settings; 6) working alone or in small numbers; 7) working late at night or during early morning hours; 8) working in high-crime areas; 9) guarding valuable property or possessions; and 10) working in community-based settings.

Guidelines, Recommendations from OSHA
OSHA's response to the workplace violence problem in certain industries has been the production of guidelines and recommendations that those industries implement workplace violence prevention programs. In 1996, OSHA published "Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care and Social Service Workers." Two years later, OSHA published "Recommendations for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs in Late-Night Retail Establishments."

The guidelines and recommendations are based on OSHA's Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines and contain four basic elements:
1) Management commitment and employee involvement. This could include clear goals for worker security in smaller sites or a written program for larger organizations.
2) Worksite analysis. This involves identifying high-risk situations through employee surveys, workplace walk-throughs, and reviews of injury/illness data.
3) Hazard prevention and control. This calls for designing engineering, administrative, and work practice controls to prevent or limit violent incidents.
4) Training and education. This ensures employees know about potential security hazards and ways to protect themselves and their co-workers.

The following are recommended engineering and administrative controls (depending on a company's structure):

  • physical barriers, such as bulletproof enclosures, pass-through windows, or deep service counters;
  • alarm systems and panic buttons;
  • convex mirrors, elevated vantage points, clear visibility of service and cash register areas;
  • bright and effective lighting;
  • adequate staffing; and
  • arranging furniture to prevent entrapment;
  • cash-handling controls, such as using drop safes;
  • height markers on exit doors;
  • emergency procedures in case of robbery;
  • training in identifying hazardous situations and appropriate responses in emergencies;
  • video surveillance equipment and closed-circuit TV; and
  • establishing liaison with local police.

Post-incident response and evaluation are essential to an effective violence prevention program. All workplace violence programs should provide treatment for victimized employees and those possibly traumatized by witnessing a workplace incident. Some types of assistance that could be incorporated into the post-incident response include: 1) trauma-crisis counseling; 2) critical incident stress debriefing; or 3) employee assistance programs to assist victims.

State Rules and Guidelines
Some states have instituted workplace violence programs. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries adopted requirements for crime prevention in late-night retail establishments in 1990. As part of its program, late-night retail establishments must implement crime prevention measures such as crime prevention training for employees and implement some design features and administrative controls, such as window and door displays configured to provide clear viewing inside, adequate outside lighting, and drop safes or comparable devices.

The New Jersey Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health Program adopted guidelines to help public employees in health care facilities secure measures and procedures to protect them from violent and aggressive behavior.

In 1993, Cal/OSHA issued guidelines for health care and community service workers to assist and support workers who may be exposed to violent behavior from patients, clients, or the public. Recommended assault prevention measures include engineering controls (alarm systems), administrative measures (adequate staffing), appropriate work practices, and training. In 1995, the California agency issued revised guidelines for workplace security. Cal/OSHA recommends that employers establish, implement, and maintain an effective Illness and Injury Prevention Program to address the hazards known to be associated with workplace violence. It also provides a model program to assist employers and employees.

No one is required to use the model, but Cal/OSHA recommends that if an employer determines workplace security hazards exist in the workplace, it may want to use some of the content or the entire model program, tailoring it to specific needs.

Cal/OSHA's list of risk factors is common to a list from Compliance Solutions, with one risk added: workers with a history of assaults or who exhibit belligerent, intimidating, and threatening behavior to others. Although Cal/OSHA has no General Duty Clause, federal rules govern the extent of an employer's obligation to address workplace violence under the General Duty Clause. The clause reads "Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."

Symptoms Co-Workers Can Spot
Studies by The Workplace Violence Research Institute of Palm Springs, Calif., show an armed intruder is not the chief threat workers face. The institute's definition of workplace violence is "Any act against an employee that creates a hostile work environment and negatively affects the employee, either physically or psychologically. These acts include all types of physical or verbal assaults, threats, coercion, intimidation, and all forms of harassment."

The institute's research on more than 200 workplace violence incidents revealed that in each case, the suspect exhibited multiple pre-incident indicators. These included the following 20 symptoms:

  • increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs;
  • an unexplained increase in absenteeism;
  • noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene;
  • depression and withdrawal;
  • unprovoked, explosive outbursts of anger or rage;
  • threats or verbal abuses of co-workers and supervisors;
  • repeated comments indicating suicidal tendencies;
  • frequent vague physical complaints;
  • noticeably unstable emotional responses;
  • behavior suggestive of paranoia;
  • preoccupation with previous incidents of violence;
  • increased mood swings;
  • having a plan to "solve all problems";
  • resistance and over-reaction to procedural changes;
  • increased unsolicited comments about firearms and other dangerous weapons;
  • empathy with individuals committing violence;
  • repeated violations of company policy;
  • fascination with violent and/or sexually explicit movies or publications;
  • escalation of domestic problems;
  • large withdrawals from or closing his/her account in the company's credit union.

Other commonalities among workplace violence offenders are: 1) white male 35-45 years of age; 2) a migratory job history; 3) a loner with little or no family or social support; 4) chronically disgruntled; 5) externalizes blame, rarely accepting responsibility for things gone wrong; 6) takes criticism poorly; 7) identifies with violence; 8) more than a casual drug and/or alcohol user; and 9) has a keen interest in firearms and other dangerous weapons.

Hiring Right, Hiring Wrong
Proper screening procedures during the hiring process will help keep potentially dangerous individuals out of the workforce. All applicants should be clearly warned that the company conducts thorough background checks of all new employees and requires a signed waiver to allow the company access to criminal, driving, employment, financial, military, and other appropriate records. In addition, all prospective employees should be warned they are subject to random drug and alcohol testing, and that failing a test is grounds for immediate dismissal.

While it is increasingly difficult to get meaningful information from a former employer, the Workplace Violence Research Institute says a personal visit to the applicant's former place of employment will bring more successful results, especially if shown a copy of the waiver signed by the employee.

To reduce the possibility of violence resulting from a termination, policies and procedures should be designed to assist those carrying out this duty. Although different companies use different procedures, the following might be common to all: 1) terminate at the beginning or end of a shift; 2) prohibit the employee's return to his/her work area; 3) make termination a statement of fact, not a discussion or debate; 4) termination with all paperwork and other activities, including counseling and/or outplacement, should occur in the same locale; 5) the terminated employee's dignity must be preserved; 6) post-termination communications should be future-oriented; 7) if a violent reaction can be reasonably anticipated, brief security and ask them to stand by.

Failure to have such programs in place can result in huge liabilities. Negligent hiring occurs when prior to hiring, the employer knew or should have known a particular applicant was not fit for the job. Negligent retention occurs when an employer becomes aware of an employee's unsuitability and fails to act.

Employers must use every advantage available to them to avoid the problems stemming from negligent hiring, retention, and failure to protect the workplace. They must screen all applicants with every available means and, if and when a potential problem arises, seriously consider whether or not to retain the employee. Employers must make sure proper security methods are in place to provide a safe working environment.

This article originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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