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Mitigating the Risks of Workplace Violence

By Erik Eisenmann, Husch Blackwell

Workplace violence has become a topic of increasing concern among corporate leaders. The trend is well-documented and is especially felt by the healthcare industry, which continues to experience the fall-out of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2018, 73% of all nonfatal workplace violence incidents involved healthcare workers. A late 2020 survey reported that 20% of nurses reported they began facing an increase in workplace violence after the pandemic commenced.

The issue of workplace violence is not purely an issue of employee morale, but also carries significant legal consequences. In January, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) hit Montefiore Medical Center in New York City with over $13,000 in fines for failing to protect employees from workplace violence from patients, which resulted in broken bones and bite injuries. OSHA determined that Montefiore’s workplace violence prevention program was inadequate and lacked sufficient employee training. Further, while the healthcare industry has seen the highest incidence of violence, other industries are not immune. In late July, OSHA proposed more than $330,000 in fines against Family Dollar Stores Inc. for failure to implement effective workplace violence prevention programs, after one incident left an employee dead.

The first step in mitigating workplace violence is developing an effective policy. An effective workplace violence prevention program should have clear goals, be suitable for the size and complexity of the employer’s operations, and adaptable to specific situations. The first step in developing such a program is identifying risks through records review, hazard analysis of job tasks, employee surveys, and customer surveys. The second step is to implement appropriate controls based on the identified risks. Some common controls in the hospital setting are providing two exits to every room, adding accessible silent panic buttons, ensuring workers are not alone with patients prone to violence, and periodically surveying and moving unneeded items out of reach of patients. Lastly, the program should be constantly reassessed and adjusted (preferably after every incident or near-miss) to ensure it is best-tailored to meet the program’s goals.

Of course, simply developing a policy is not enough. An employer must ensure that their workers are well-trained on the policy and their role in its implementation. Workplace violence can happen to anyone, and the sources of it are poorly understood. Therefore, it is imperative that all workers, including contract workers, supervisors, and managers, are trained on the policy. While training should include general instruction on developing a respectful workplace culture as a form of violence prevention, there should also be individualized training on job-specific hazards and the appropriate responses that have been developed for various positions. For example, third-shift employees should be informed that nighttime has been identified as a particularly high-risk time for violence and in turn workers should be accompanied by or in the line of sight of another individual whenever possible. After this initial training, workers should be given periodic refresher trainings on program expectations.

Merely ignoring the rising trend of workplace violence and thinking “it won’t happen to my company” is not an option for employers. The key to mitigating workplace violence is effective policy and training guided by experienced professionals in the labor and employment field.

Erik Eisenmann is a Milwaukee-based partner with Husch Blackwell and leads the firm’s Labor & Employment group.