How to Talk to Teams About Workplace Violence Prevention

In the U.S., workplace violence statistics paint a tragic picture:

  • Workplace violence affects two million workers each year
  • 9% of worker deaths in 2017 were by some form of violence
  • In construction, violence caused 56 of 971 deaths in 2017

Workplace violence is a problem in the United States in general and in the construction industry, in particular. Talking about it is difficult. No one wants to believe that it will happen to them. But if we don’t prepare for it, we won’t know how to respond.

In this article, we’ll explore what workplace violence is, how employers can prepare for it, and offer a look a strategies workers use to protect themselves and others.

What is Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence includes a range of behaviors from verbal harassment to physical assault. It includes behaviors such as harassment, physical violence, intimidation, bullying, and sexual harassment. Workplace violence causes physical and emotional injuries and can lead to absenteeism, reduced production, and lower employee morale.

The potential for workplace violence is a safety risk at all workplaces, and as such, employers have a duty to address it.

Ex-police officer and consultant Shawn Carter describes five sources of workplace violence:

  1. Criminals coming on-site to perpetrate a crime
  2. Upset clients or customers
  3. Employees harassing each other
  4. Domestic violence situations carried out at the victim’s workplace
  5. Small groups or individuals targeting specific businesses for ideological reasons.

In his 15 years of experience as a police officer in Oregon, Carter says most all workplace violence situations fit into one of these categories.

Why Workplace Violence is an Issue for Every Employer

Although not all instances of workplace violence are preventable, employers have a responsibility to keep employees safe from known and potential threats.

The first step is to recognize that workplace violence is a problem that your company must address. Too many employers don’t see workplace violence as an issue that can affect their workplace until it’s too late. 

“It’s incumbent upon the leadership to cast that vision, that this is important, that we take this seriously,” Carter says. “And then, invest time, money, and resources into the issue. And it’s like a good insurance policy. You’ll invest and invest and invest and hope you never need it. But when you do, it will not only save lives, but it will save money. But that assumes that you are starting from the premise that there is a problem with workplace violence in America. And that it is our responsibility as business owners or executive level management to address that.”

Carter provides employers with six actions they can take to help prevent violence at work:

  1. Talk about it
  2. Provide training
  3. Perform site assessments
  4. Test employees
  5. Cultivate a positive culture
  6. Offer employee assistance programs (EAPs)

Talk About It

Employers have to start by talking about workplace violence. And they have to talk about it all the time. “It’s not enough to throw out a flyer or a 15-minute talk about this,” says Carter. “This has to be a flood of information that is coming out in a practical, relevant, and I would even say entertaining way for your employees to retain it.”

The information you provide needs to be relevant to the audience and to their position in the company. Don’t talk to office workers about conditions specific to a job site. Make the information relatable to everyone and keep repeating it.

Carter says that we always go back to our last training when it comes to information recall in a stressful situation. The more information employees have to recall, the better they will be able to react.

Provide Training

All employees should receive training in how to de-escalate stressful situations before the situation becomes violent. Classes in conflict resolution, emotional control, and verbal judo can help both supervisors and general workers respond better during stressful conversations. They teach employees how to de-escalate situations and deal with strong emotions, hopefully preventing a violent incident before it happens.

Employees can also benefit from training on dealing with physical violence, such as self-defense classes or other violence avoidance techniques. These classes can help empower employees and help them feel safer at work.

Perform Site Assessments

Carter recommends a full site assessment of every worksite, including the home office. The assessment should note the exits and entrances, meeting places, closest medical access, safest places to hide, and the address of the site. These may be small observances that we take for granted, but in the heat of the moment, information can get lost or forgotten.

But gathering the information isn’t enough. All employees working on the site need access to the results, so they have it when they need it. Because in a moment everything about their day could change if someone came in with an intent to harm workers on the site. At that point, they have to know where to go, who to call, and where they are. The more often you repeat the information, the more it is ingrained in their memory so they can recall it, even in the middle of an incident.

Test Employees

“You have to inspect what you expect,” Carter says. It isn’t enough to train or talk about how to respond in an incident, you should be testing your employees regularly to make sure they have the data available to recall. This includes practicing emergency responses. During an incident, “our adrenaline and our biological factors take over and you will immediately go to that last bit of training you’ve had. And if you’ve never thought about what you’ll do, you’re going to stutter, stammer, and fall apart. So, you have to practice.”

Like fire drills in school, safety managers should work with employees to simulate a violent incident to test their knowledge on a regular basis. Ask questions like: “What do we do when two guys get upset with each other at the water cooler, and a pushing match ensues? How are we going to respond?” Then, play the situation out, including real responses to real actions. Debrief the team after the incident is over to see how they could improve their responses.

Cultivate a Positive Culture

“In studies throughout history, we’ve learned that employees don’t stay in their workplaces for money and benefits,” Carter says. “Other factors supersede money and benefits. And a lot of those things have to do with culture. And with a culture of feeling safe.”

Company cultures have to do with the unwritten rules of how employees conduct themselves. Are the rules talked about in orientation being followed? Are there consequences for negative actions? Or is all this talk about safety and health just wasted breath?

“If you have a culture where violence is not taken seriously, where management questions the need to buy insurance when they haven’t been in an accident, then ultimately all this time, money, and resources that are being put into preventing workplace violence are wasted,” Carter says. Management must see the value of the investment and cultivate a company culture that believes in the importance of preventing violence and harassment.

“When the culture is right, all you have to do is set the expectation, and then put new employees into the organism that is the culture you’ve built. And that organism self-polices. It catches each other.”

Offer EAPs

Employee assistance programs provide help for workers struggling with physical, psychological, and other issues that may affect their work performance. Many programs offer legal assistance, nutritionists, mental health services, addiction treatment, and other benefits. By helping employees deal with their personal and work struggles, employers continue to cultivate a culture that cares about workers and helps to prevent violence at work.

EAPs won’t help address problems with customers or criminals intent on creating havoc. But they can help with employee violence and in domestic violence situations.

Basic Strategies for Dealing with Immediate Threats of Violence at Work

Verbal assaults and harassment can be better dealt with by employees who have received training in conflict resolution, de-escalation, emotional control, and verbal judo. Using these techniques many verbal disputes can be handled by coworkers or the participants themselves. Handling disagreements before violence erupts helps prevent injuries and damage to business property.

To deal with physical violence or an active shooter situation, there are three recommended responses: run, hide, or fight. Employees should be educated about where they can run to protect themselves, safe hiding places, and how and when to fight back if needed. Training and self-defense classes can help make this knowledge more accessible in stressful situations.

Practicing these skills is key to having them available in a stressful, anxious moment. Managers should quiz employees regularly about their responses to stressful situations. Jobsite superintendents can instigate drills to practice responding to violent or verbally aggressive visitors.

The more your employees think about the training they’ve received, the more available the information will be when a situation arises.

Learning How to Prevent Workplace Violence is Vital

Workplace violence includes not only physical altercations, but verbal harassment, bullying, and sexual harassment. Talking about these issues and training workers on how to deal with them fosters a company culture that helps prevent future violence. 

By talking about it, offering training, doing site assessments, practicing the skills, developing a culture of safety, and offering employee assistance programs, employers can provide their workers with a safe work environment. And if violence should occur, employees will have the tools they need to de-escalate the situation, run, hide, or fight back.

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Team Safesite

By Team Safesite

We're a group of safety and tech professionals united in our desire to make every workplace safer. We keep a pulse on the latest regulations, standards, and industry trends in safety and write about them here on our blog.

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