Preventing Workplace Violence

Headshot - Peg O'Brien
Margaret "Peg" O'Brien
Director, Litigation Department and Chair, Employment Law Group
Published: New Hampshire Business Review
February 17, 2022

Incidence can range from threats to homicide.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that some 2 million workers in the United States are victims of workplace violence each year – and no workplace is immune from these events.  Reports of workplace shootings and other acts of workplace violence have been especially prevalent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employers Have a Legal Duty to Provide a Safe Workplace

As all employers have no doubt learned during the past year, OSHA requires covered employers to provide a safe workplace, free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.  OSHA covers most private sector employers regardless of size in all 50 states.  During the pandemic, the focus has been on eliminating the risk presented by COVID-19 in the workplace.  However, the same legal obligation that requires employers to address the risks presented by COVID-19 also requires employers to assess and reduce the risk of workplace violence.  OSHA cautions on its website that “[e]mployers who do not take reasonable steps to prevent or abate a recognized violence hazard in the workplace can be cited.” New Hampshire state law also mandates that all employers with 15 or more employees must adopt a written safety program that addresses, among other things, “work methods and procedures that will protect the life, health, and safety of the employees.”  In the sample program posted on the New Hampshire Department of Labor website, a section is included for employers to address its plan for addressing the risk of workplace violence.

What Steps Can New Hampshire Businesses Take to Create a Violence Free Workplace?

The best step employers can take to protect their employees is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence.  In doing so, employers should adopt a workplace prevention policy that prohibits all forms of workplace violence against or by their employees.  This policy should clearly define the types of conduct that are not acceptable including threatening language or conduct, unwelcome physical conduct, sexual assault, and other threatening or intimidating conduct.  The policy should also provide a description of any prohibited weapons in the workplace.  In addition, the policy should inform employees how to report acts of workplace violence if they witness or experience such conduct and how to protect themselves.  Finally, the policy should clearly advise that all claims of workplace violence will be investigated and remedied immediately, and that acts of violence by an employee will subject the employee to discipline up to and including immediate termination.

Employers should also regularly train employees and supervisors on this policy of workplace violence so that they are consistently reminded what conduct is not acceptable and to reinforce a “see something, say something” culture that encourages employees to report suspicious or threatening behavior or communications.  Early detection of threatening conduct is a key to reducing the risk of workplace violence.

Along with policies and training, employers should also review the safety and security features within the workplace.  OSHA suggests that employers consider, where appropriate, installation of video surveillance, extra lighting, and alarm systems, and establishing access controls through badges and electronic keys. If the business has a safety committee as required by state law or voluntarily as a best practice, the committee can assist the employer with assessing and implementing the employer’s workplace violence prevention policies and establishing procedures for carrying out the policy.  One key action for the committee to consider is reaching out to the local police department to introduce the employer to the department and to inquire as to the best way to report and to respond to any acts of violence swiftly and effectively, short of 911 in an emergency and to inquire about any additional safety protocols or security measures the police may recommend.

Final Considerations

Taking a proactive approach to this topic is the best strategy for employers.  While no policy will prevent all acts of intentional harm, sitting back and hoping such violence will not occur is not the solution.  By creating a culture of open communication and discussion, employees and supervisors will be more likely to escalate concerns at an early stage to help diffuse conflict before it turns violent.  Workplace grievance and open door policies can also go a long way to establishing this type of culture.  Similarly, education and training employees and supervisors on the definition of workplace violence and the importance of reporting their concerns at the first signs of a problem will aid employers in preventing acts of violence.  This pandemic has created an especially stressful time for employees.  Now is an excellent time to engage on this important topic.