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Chapter 3: Controlling and Preventing Workplace Violence

Since violence may often be predicted, it may also be prevented, even in workplaces that serve people who tend to be aggressive and violent. Some solutions are easy, painless and cheap; others are more difficult and more expensive. They differ greatly among occupations and workplaces.

The principles used to address other safety and health issues can be applied to the workplace violence problem. A combination of these controls will usually be the most effective and practical way to control workplace violence hazards. Not all measures will be practical in every workplace, but effective measures that could reduce the risk of violence may be found for any workplace.

1. Eliminate or Substitute the Hazard — Clearly, you cannot replace the inmates in prisons or drug addicts in treatment with less dangerous clients. Nevertheless, in some cases, elimination of the hazard is possible. Mental health and social service workers are frequently assaulted by patients or residents in health care or social service institutions who should be in jails or holding facilities.The physical facilities of an institution may not be equipped to handle high-risk inmates, and mental health attendants may not be trained to deal with highly violent patients.Transferring high-risk inmates or highly violent patients to more appropriate facilities is one method of eliminating potential hazards of workplace violence.

2. Engineering Controls — Engineering controls create a barrier between the worker and the hazard. Here are some engineering controls:

  • Control or limit access to the facility by keeping doors locked from the outside and restricting access to the facility, especially after dark.
  • Install locks on doors that lead to staff-only areas, including bathrooms and break areas. Locks that open by verifying an employee’s fingerprints or that are accessed by a key card are preferable to combination locks since the code can be easily learned by a perpetrator.
  • Issue identification tags to employees and visitor passes to guests so that workers and security personnel know who belongs in the facility and who doesn’t. Minimize the personal information on an identification tag. A perpetrator may only need the worker’s last name or Social Security number to figure out where that person lives.
  • Create better escape routes by re-arranging furniture, aisles and offices to make exits more accessible. Alter the layout of offices,work areas and waiting rooms to prevent employees from being trapped.
  • Install deep service counters and bullet or shatterproof glass in reception areas to separate clients from employees.
  • Lock up medical tools or other sharp instruments when not in use and install metal detectors (stationary or hand-held).
  • Install panic alarms where employees encounter the public, and security cameras (closed-circuit TV) in and outside the building with a posted sign indicating they are in operation.
  • Provide cell phones or pagers and personal (handheld) alarms or portable panic buttons for field personnel.
  • Increase security patrols, especially during evening and early morning hours.
  • Provide adequate lighting and fencing around the building,walkways, facility grounds and parking areas.
  • Install emergency phones throughout the facility and grounds that automatically call security personnel or 911.
  • Get to know your law enforcement beat officers to let them know that you’re implementing these measures; ask their advice about what other businesses have done to prevent crime.

3. Administrative Controls —Administrative controls are practices that reduce the likelihood for violence. Listed below are examples of administrative controls for workplace violence:

  • Increase staffing levels so that workers do not work by themselves.
  • Ban employees from working alone.
  • Implement a “buddy system” for employees who work with potentially violent clients, patients or inmates.
  • Record assaults, verbal abuses and “near misses” to learn how to prevent similar incidents from recurring.
  • Provide security escorts to parking areas for employees who work late at night or early in the morning. Install bright, effective lighting.
  • Notify security personnel when employees work “off-hours.”
  • Provide training in defusing violent situations, self-defense, escape routes and procedures to follow when violence occurs.
  • Provide sensitive and timely information to persons waiting in line or in waiting rooms. Adopt measures to decrease waiting time.

4. Special Measures for Employees who Work in the Field

  • Prepare a daily work plan and keep a contact person informed of their location throughout the day.
  • When necessary, use a “buddy system” or provide for back-up assistance (such as police assistance) so that workers do not have to enter a potentially dangerous situation alone.
  • Provide a communication device (such as a cell phone or twoway radio) for employees in the field to call for help when necessary.
  • Provide a portable panic button that will automatically dial for help when activated.
  • Consider providing personal protective devices (such as pepper gel or mace, stun guns or other device) to employees and train employees in how to properly use any device. Such devices may not be appropriate for all types of community or legal for workers to carry and use.
  • Keep vehicles well-maintained. Always lock vehicles.
  • Provide field staff with hand-held alarms or noise devices.
  • Discourage employees from carrying keys, pens or other items that could be used as weapons.
  • Be aware that some types of public worker uniforms may be associated with “authority figures” such as inspectors, police or drug enforcers. Not all public-sector workers are welcomed in some residences or businesses.
  • Be aware that public health nurses and other health care workers may be targeted for the drugs and medical supplies that they carry with them. Health care workers should not wear medical uniforms and carry medical bags if they enter dangerous neighborhoods.
  • Establish a relationship with the local police department.
  • Management should offer free legal assistance to employees who want to press charges against their attackers.
  • Give employees the option to refuse to enter a potentially dangerous situation alone. Employees should be able to request back-up assistance (such as a co-worker, supervisor, police or security escort) when they feel it is necessary.

Emergency Action Plans

Many employers already have an emergency action plan (also called a crisis response plan) that describes procedures to follow during a fire or other emergency. Most, however, do not cover workplace violence emergencies, including bomb threats. Local unions may want to propose that management expand the emergency action plan to cover violent incidents. The plan should be specific to the type of facility, building and workers it covers. For example, the emergency action plan for a correctional facility will be different from the one that is used by a mental health institution. Also, the plan should be updated and reviewed with workers regularly, particularly if there is turnover among employees or a change to the facility or a work rule. The emergency action plan should describe:

  • procedures for calling for help;
  • procedures for calling for medical assistance;
  • procedures for notifying the proper authorities (security personnel and the police);
  • emergency escape procedures and routes;
  • safe places to escape inside and outside of the facility;
  • securing the work area where the incident took place;
  • procedures for accounting for all employees if a facility is evacuated;
  • identifying personnel who may be called upon to perform medical or rescue duties; and
  • training and educating employees in workplace violence issues and the emergency action plan.

For more information, see AFSCME’s booklet, Are You Prepared? A Guide to Emergency Planning in the Workplace.

Bomb Threats

Management and the union should develop bomb threat procedures before a threat is ever received. Procedures for responding to bomb threats can be included in the emergency action plan. By planning ahead, employees will know what to do and will be less likely to panic. The union will also have an easier time convincing management to evacuate, or follow other emergency procedures, if those procedures are written as a formal policy.

  • As with other threats, take all bomb threats seriously.
  • Evacuate the facility and call the police or bomb squad to search the property.
  • Instruct all employees, particularly receptionists and secretaries, what to do if a bomb threat call is received.
  • Develop a method of reporting bomb threats or suspicious telephone calls.
  • Employees (who are not trained) should never search for bombs on their own. Police bomb squads often ask for an employee to assist in searching for bombs since the employee is better able to recognize something unusual in the workplace. Ensure that this employee (and a back-up employee in case the worker is absent from work) volunteers to help and receives special training from the police bomb squad.
  • Train employees in how to recognize a suspicious parcel or package and what to do if they identify one.
  • Contact the local police department or bomb squad for information on responding to bomb threats. They may also provide training to employees and managers.
  • Request that the local police department or bomb squad review the bomb threat procedures and methods of evacuating the facility.

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