Improving Your Workplace Violence Prevention Program

Management commitment is paramount to its success. Here’s how to translate it into concrete actions.

Workplace violence has become a major source of occupational injury and loss, requiring employers to treat this issue no differently than other health and safety risks. This article briefly discusses how a Workplace Violence Prevention Program (WVPP) could be improved in effectiveness when implemented as a quality management process. The 10-element WVPP proposed by McAneny (2001) was selected for discussion due to its comprehensiveness. Individual elements of this program are discussed in the context of the Extended Process Model developed by Pryor et al. (2007). A "process" focus ensures that security threats, and the organization’s vulnerability to those threats, are identified, evaluated, and managed systematically by mapping the WVPP, assigning roles and responsibilities for implementation, providing the needed resources, and tying the results of monitoring and measurement to continuous improvement of the controls.

NIOSH defines workplace violence as "violent acts, including physical assault and threats of assault, directed towards persons at work or on duty." Workplace violence has been increasing across the United States, according to data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on homicides at work (BLS, 2006). This unfortunate trend may be attributed to work-related stress, weak legislation on WVPPs, and many employers simply lacking the knowledge of how to address this problem. The BLS survey further found that most firms do not have a documented WVPP and rely on mitigation-focused or after-the-fact measures, such as Employee Assistance Plans, emergency action/response plans, and incident follow-up processes.

In November 1999, a worker who had a low tolerance for stress and a violent temper shot dead seven co-workers at the Xerox warehouse in Honolulu after leaving threatening notes for a period of time; in February 2010, a biology professor at the University of Alabama shot dead three fellow professors after being denied a promotion; in July 2010, an Albuquerque manufacturing plant worker shot dead three employers and wounded several others following a non-work dispute with his girlfriend. Many other incidents could be added to this list of workplace homicides.

McAneny proposed a WVPP template comprising these elements: management commitment and employee involvement, policy statement, threat assessment team, workplace hazard analysis, hazard prevention and control, training, program evaluation, incident response, and recordkeeping. Each element is discussed further in the context of the Extended Process Model (EPM) framework. The key aspects of the EPM include:

  • Defined responsibility, authority, and accountability for implementing the process
  • Resources, including people, finance, time, and equipment that support the process
  • The physical process itself, including policies, structures, and procedures, and
  • Controls, based upon feedback from monitoring and measurement of implementation

Improving the Effectiveness of a WVPP based on the NSC Model Program
1. Management Commitment and Employee Involvement
Management commitment is paramount to the success of any WVPP. This commitment is translated into concrete actions by establishing principles and policies; instituting an organizational structure, systems, and processes; approving the required resources; defining roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities for employees and providing them training; empowering and supporting individuals and high-performance teams; providing secure means for reporting threats and incidents; ensuring that all incidents are taken seriously, investigated for root causes and completion of corrective actions in a timely manner; and holding managers accountable for implementation of the program and meeting the performance deliverables.

Employee involvement in the WVPP includes participating in program development, abiding by policy and rules, participating in surveys on workplace violence risks, recognizing and reporting signs of deviant behavior, offering suggestions for improvement of existing procedures and countermeasures, completing the required training, and meeting the objectives and goals established for the program.

2. Workplace Violence Prevention Policy
A written workplace violence prevention policy that has been endorsed by top management demonstrates commitment and lays the foundation for the entire program. The policy should align with the organization's mission and vision, principles, ethics, and shared values. A comprehensive WVPP policy will state zero tolerance for threats (verbal and nonverbal); require the reporting, investigation, and follow-up of all threats and incidents; require the establishment and continuous improvement of processes to deter and manage workplace violence; encourage participation of all levels of employees in the program; commit to treating victims of violence in a confidential and fair manner; and clearly state management’s commitment to compliance with the law in dealing with incidents.

3. Threat Assessment Team
The formulation, training, and support of a Threat Assessment Team are critical to the success of the program. Management backing is essential to ensure that this team develops into cross-functional, "high-performance team." Its members should be provided with the resources needed to perform their responsibilities. Those resources include monetary allocations for engineering and administrative controls; threat assessment methods, such as SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and Security Vulnerability Analysis programs; access to subject matter experts; and access to in-house information pertaining to human resources, legal, and health and safety. The Threat Assessment Team describes and documents the WVPP, establishes baselines and benchmarks to compare and evaluate the implementation of the program, and makes recommendations to management for continuous improvement of the program. Approaches that may be useful in this regard are the Deming Cycle and Golden-Pryor Process Improvement Checklist (Pryor, Mildred Golden, White, Chris J., & Toombs, Leslie A. (2007). Strategic Quality Management: A Systems Approach to Continuous Improvement).

The Deming Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle is based on the tents of planning, implementation, review, and corrective action, as described by the American Society for Quality.

4. Workplace Analysis
A workplace security analysis is the starting point for identifying the threats, estimating the probability or likelihood of their occurrence, and understanding their consequences. A workplace analysis may be accomplished through physical inspections, a review of documentation, methods and procedures such as SWOT analysis, and discussions with internal (employees, contractors, suppliers) and external customers.

The first step in workplace analysis is the identification of standards against which the analysis/evaluation will be measured and performed. Such standards include regulations (e.g., OSHA and the Americans with Disabilities Act), industry standards (e.g., American Petroleum Institute), insurance provider policy/requirements, and industry best practices. The next step involves the identification of situations or vulnerabilities that are important to the analysis. The factors that affect the risk of a worker's being assaulted, according to NIOSH (1996), include:

  • Contact with the public
  • Exchange of money
  • Delivery of passengers, goods, or services
  • Mobile workplaces, such as a taxi cab or police cruiser
  • Working with unstable customers (e.g., in health care, social service, or criminal justice)
  • Working alone or in small numbers
  • Working late at night or during early morning hours
  • Working in high-crime areas
  • Guarding valuable property or possessions
  • Working in community-based settings

Data analysis should be performed on past incident reports, worker's compensation claims, property damage, etc. to identify patterns, trends, problems, and root causes and develop the management strategy for the program. Processes should be then developed for performing, documenting, and managing the threats and vulnerabilities. That may be done by using in-house expertise or with the help of outside consultants. In either case, a Process Expert, Process Owner, and Process Review Team should be designated to ensure that the process is reviewed for effectiveness and updated regularly. Each process should include controls or key performance indicators to verify the extent of its implementation and to continually improve the process.

5. Workplace Hazard Control and Prevention
The workplace analysis will shed light on the adequacy of existing controls for the perceived threats, and the need for new controls, if any. Employee input should be solicited in determining the type and extent of controls and action plans developed for their implementation. Each required or recommended action must be assigned to an employee by name and due date and tracked to its closure. Hazard controls should be vetted by human resources and legal counsel to ensure their compatibility with privacy legislation. As with health and safety hazards, personal security hazard controls may be categorized as engineering, administrative, or personal protective equipment. Engineering controls are resource intensive and include considerations such as area and perimeter lighting, video surveillance systems, communication and alarm systems, secure access systems (e.g., biometric scanners, card access), and safe storage systems/arrangements for valuables. Casteel, C. & Peek-Asa, C. (2000) showed that a good store design/layout is effective in reducing the number of robberies.

Administrative controls are also resource intensive, but from the manpower and implementation perspective. They include processes for training, workplace violence prevention policies, and procedures. Training is an important element of the WVPP and is discussed in a subsequent section. HR- and health and safety-related policies assist workplace violence prevention efforts and include a drug and alcohol abuse prevention policy, a no-weapons policy, a disciplinary policy, a harassment policy, etc. Procedures should be developed for employee screening and hiring, on-site cash handling, escorting vulnerable employees to/from their mode of transportation following work hours, incident reporting, and proper use and operation of security equipment.

Personal protective equipment is the last line of defense against physical attack and should be considered if warranted or recommended by the security analyses. PPE for security incidents include working alone/loss of motion alarms, bulletproof vests, tasers, and pepper spray.

6. Program Evaluation
The Golden-Pryor Process Improvement Checklist is a useful tool for evaluating the processes that make up the WVPP. Each process should be evaluated by the Process Review Team periodically, and items that do not add value (e.g., unnecessary meetings or excessive document-keeping requirements) should be eliminated. Pryor et al. (2007) further suggested that processes be computerized wherever possible. Process improvements should be documented and communicated to all personnel in the organization to keep them abreast with the changes. Employees must be encouraged to report constraints and other problems in the process (or its implementation) so that the process can be streamlined and simplified.

7. Training
Training promotes understanding of the overall process and provides the employee with the knowledge and skills needed to perform his/her responsibilities under the program. Training should include a review of policies and procedures in the WVPP, how to report and defuse hostile situations, how to seek assistance, personal security measures, and how to use the security systems and equipment provided (OPM, 1998). Each process covered by the WVPP should include clear requirements for training. The training of the Threat Assessment Team members should include the use of various process analysis tools, team building, and an introduction to the applicable standards and regulations.

8. Incident Response
Incident response, as a process, involves the definition of roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities; provision of resources; documentation of sub-processes, and identification of controls. Personnel responsible for incident response should have the required training and be provided with written procedures and the resources needed to respond to the situation. Incident investigation and follow-up are important sequels to the initial response. Post-incident debriefing and counseling/critical incident stress management should be considered through processes such as the Employee Assistance Program.

9. Recordkeeping
Recordkeeping is necessary to evaluate process effectiveness, comply with legal and regulatory requirements, provide a future source of data for analysis and problem identification, and defend against lawsuits. A record retention policy and document management system should be developed to conform to this important process item.

The increasing trend in workplace violence suggests it is an issue that will need increased attention by employers in order to reduce the risk of employee and customer injuries, property damage, and, consequently, a decline in productivity and profitability. The implementation and effectiveness of a WVPP, such as the model developed by the National Safety Council, can be improved substantially if the program is managed as a process.

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This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Authors

Angelo Pinheiro, MS, CSP, CPEA, CRSP, is a Houston-based HSE expert in the upstream oil and gas industry. He is a member of the OH&S editorial advisory board.

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