The Legal Intelligencer - It Is More Important Than Ever to Ensure the Safety of Our Employees At Work
I was two months shy of my 4th birthday when Sylvia Seegrist opened fire at the mall near my house killing three people, including a 2-year-old boy, and wounding many others. A year later, Patrick Sherrill would kill 14 and injure more when he entered the Edmond, Oklahoma post office where he worked—an act which ultimately coined the ubiquitous phrase of “going postal.” Those are just distant thoughts that I can now only recall through reading newspaper articles. But my first real memory of feeling the impact of a mass shooting wouldn’t come until my senior year of high school. On that fateful day in April, 1999, the country stood still as news of the tragedy that had taken place at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado made its way into millions of homes in the United States and beyond. Outrage, anger and utter grief was felt by many with pushes for gun reform and school safety. As an adult, I have seen our country suffer from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and mass shootings at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Florida, the Pulse nightclub and, unfortunately, so many more of the same. But while violence of any kind—whether a mass shooting or a one-off encounter—is hard to control we must do our due diligence in ensuring that at least while in the workplace our employees can be, and feel, safe. Recent acts of violence around the country should be reminding us as employers that we must always be proactive in keeping safety top of mind. For me the harsh reminder to do so came this past summer after the sexual assault of a female employee in a Center City, Philadelphia law office—a vicious and brazen attack that happened in broad daylight during the workweek and just blocks from my firm’s offices. While workplace violence has been around longer than my lifetime, over the last 20 years we have seen an uptick in occurrences. Employers are entrusted with keeping their employees safe from all harm—both internal and external—while in the workplace so it is vital for us to take steps to make our employees safe in their workplaces.
Workplace Violence in the United States
So what is workplace violence anyway? According to Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), workplace violence is “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” OSHA states that “acts of violence and other injuries is currently the third-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States.” According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study on workplace violence, 24% of nonfatal violent crimes (rape/sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault) “occurred against persons age 16 or older while they were at work or on duty, based on findings from the National Crime Victimization Survey.” Today, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates workplace violence incidents cost employers more than $120 billion annually (when taking into account things like lost productivity, legal expenses, property damage, reputational damage, and increased security costs, among others).
It is estimated that every year in the United States at least two million workers face some type of workplace violence or threat of violence. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that there were 5,190 fatal work injuries recorded in 2021,
an 8.9% increase from 4,764 in 2020. According to that report, that means “a worker died every 101 minutes from a work-related injury in 2021.” But that’s not all from violence: just over 14% of the 5,333 fatal workplace injuries
in 2019 were cases of intentional injury by another person. Still, that is almost 1,000 employee deaths from an act of violence that occurred during the workday—a statistic for which all employers should pay attention.
What Employers Can Do to Increase Workplace Safety
First, to be clear, it is everyone’s responsibility—employer and employee alike—to contribute to a safe workplace environment. Next, it is important to understand that workplace violence isn’t just guns and physical violence—as described above it also means harassment, verbal threats and acts of intimidation. Nevertheless, ensuring your physical office space is protected is also very critical. While not all buildings have security in the lobby controlling access, there are a few easy to implement things employers can do (think key card access to all entrances/exits of your office suite and locked elevators that require a passcode to get onto your floor). For smaller offices where employees may often be left alone in the office space, consider implementing a policy that if alone guests are not permitted in the office suite until at least two employees are onsite.
Just as important as implementing physical restrictions on access to our workplaces, is implementing policies and procedures to ensure that if, and when, a violent act occurs in our workplaces we can be as prepared as we can be. It is a lot to manage and juggle especially considering that there are many triggering factors when it comes to any type of violence, intimidation or threats. This means that we need to be aware of the happenings in our offices— are there noticeable signs of aggression toward colleagues or, where credible, is there office gossip spreading about one employee threatening another. Education becomes critical here.
There are many steps to identifying and understanding the layers of aggression and confrontation that lead to workplace violence. We need to educate our HR and operations teams to make sure they are properly trained in putting together a risk assessment plan, coming up with prevention programs as well as staff training programs. Those same management teams also need to be trained on implementing safety protocols if something ever were to happen. Just as equally important is educating our employees—both on the protocols and procedures as well as the benefits afforded to them to support their own wellness.
For those of you who have read any one of my columns, or have heard me speak, on diversity and inclusion, you know that mental health awareness is something that is vitally important to me. While the legal profession has a storied past when it comes to supporting the mental health of its employees (and especially of lawyers) the mental health conversation belongs here too. There are many reasons that cause people to take that one step off the ledge and take the leap into being violent—but remember not all workplace violence is solely a result of workplace issues. Just as many of us often take home the stresses of our jobs, there are many who also bring the stresses of their home life to the office. As employers, we can offer many benefits and support to our employees to encourage wellness and other stress-reducing support. Employee assistance programs (or EAPs as they are commonly referred) are usually a free added benefit of many of the health and disability insurances you are already providing your teams. Making sure your HR and benefits teams make this a visible resource that employees know that they can turn (and are encouraged to turn) to when in need. We must do our parts in providing employees the resources and support they need for mental health wellbeing—and to do so without fear of repercussion or retaliation for making their own mental health a priority because it is always a heavy price to pay when we do not.
As an aside, for those of us who are risk adverse and are always expecting the unexpected, more and more insurance companies have begun to offer insurance coverage in this space. Many policies that you probably already have such as workers’ compensation and general liability do not cover all of the expenses associated in these situations. This is where workplace violence insurance comes into play. For those insurers that offer such a policy, you can get coverage for things including legal liability coverage for expenses from lawsuits that may result from a covered event, PR counseling costs, costs of psychiatric care for traumatized employees and death benefits for victims’ families, among other coverages.
COVID-19 changed many things but I also believe that it changed the way we view each other and our willingness to do things we would have never thought of doing before. As an employer, no—we cannot be responsible for the acts of those outside our control who chose to commit violent acts. But it is everyone’s job to be alert and pay attention to our surroundings—both employer and employee. To support these efforts, we can educate and prepare our teams to be steadfast in recognizing the signs of hostile environments inside our office space. Having a safety plan and reporting processes are critical to ensuring safety in the workplace. While the legal industry is all about being in the top ranks— workplace violence is just one statistic we don’t want to be a part of.
Reprinted with permission from the February 16, 2023 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2023 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.