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Chapter 6: Reacting to Violence After it Occurs

Apart from physical injuries, violent or threatening incidents in the workplace often result in serious and disabling psychological damage.While bruises,wounds or broken bones may heal in days or months, the emotional trauma of a violent attack may take years to subside.After implementing the emergency action plan and providing prompt medical treatment for victims of workplace violence, employers will also have to deal with the psychological effects of violence.

Even supervisors who are sensitive to emotional trauma may not recognize that a violent incident — even ones that do not result in a physical injury — can have serious and long-lasting psychological effects on an employee.

Immediately after an incident, a critical incident debriefing should occur with all affected staff.Victims of the assault, as well as their co-workers, need the opportunity to discuss their concerns and feelings about the event, and suggest how to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Victims of workplace violence have an increased risk of long-term emotional problems and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an affliction common among combat veterans and victims of terrorism, crime, rape and other violent incidents. Symptoms include self-doubt, depression, fear, sleep disturbances, irritability, decreased ability to function at work, increased absenteeism, and disturbed relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Workers often blame themselves when they are injured in an assault, and management may encourage this self-blame.Victims and witnesses of violence often need long-term treatment to overcome these problems.

Fear of reprisal and lack of support for workers who are victims of violence discourage workers from reporting incidents and may lead to needless trauma for victims, co-workers and witnesses.

Employers, in cooperation with the union, should establish a process where post-trauma counseling is provided to all staff and their families who want it. The counseling should be done by a well-trained professional who understands the issues of assault and its consequences. Workers who witness incidents and co-workers who do the same jobs as the assault victim (even if at a different location) may also need assistance.

AFSCME in Action

Since 1983, county human services department employees represented by Ohio AFSCME Local 458 (Council 8) have had an assault leave provision in their contract. The contract language requires that “the Employer shall grant up to a maximum of ten (10) days of paid assault leave in lieu of paid sick leave for bargaining unit employees who are disabled as a result of an assault relating to the employee’s scope of employment and provided medical documentation is presented to the Director or designee.”

Post-Incident Investigation and Injury Reports

The union should encourage workers to report all workplace violence incidents (and close calls) and help them file a report. Documenting occurrences is an important step in making management address the problems of workplace violence. Often managers write a report after someone gets hurt. Be suspicious of reports that conclude that the worker was careless or failed to follow rules and procedures.To avoid disagreements with management about the incident, the local union should request to participate with management in reporting what happened. If management refuses, then the union should conduct its own investigation and write a report.This documentation may be useful if the worker is disciplined or fired because of the incident. When conducting an investigation, urge workers to document all assault incidents, close calls, suspicious persons and abusive behavior. Get information from the worker who was involved in an incident as well as any witnesses.Try to conduct the interview as soon after the incident (or close call) as possible since important details may be forgotten. Consult Appendix F for a sample incident report form.Ask the worker(s) to describe the incident and follow up with questions about the circumstances surrounding the incident, such as:

  • Where did the incident occur?
  • Was the worker alone?
  • Was a security guard on duty? If yes,was security notified and did he/she respond?
  • What time did the incident occur?
  • Was the perpetrator a stranger, client/patient, co-worker or otherwise familiar?
  • Were any threats made before the incident occurred?
  • Did the worker(s) ever report to the employer that he/she was threatened, harassed, or suspicious that the attacker may become violent? If yes, what was the employer’s response?
  • What type of weapon did the attacker use against the worker? How did the perpetrator obtain the weapon?
  • Did the worker ever receive training in workplace violence issues?
  • What were the main factors that contributed to the incident?
  • What could have prevented or minimized the damage caused by this workplace violence incident?

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing and Post- Trauma Counseling

Providing a critical incident stress debriefing and post-trauma counseling services is an essential part of responding to violence. Debriefing is group counseling that occurs usually within a few days of the incident. Debriefing provides employees the opportunity to discuss what happened and for the counselors to assess which employees may benefit from long-term counseling. Witnesses of violence, co-workers and workers who perform similar jobs as the victim (even if they are in a different facility) may also benefit from debriefing and counseling.

Some Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) can provide post-trauma services to employees. EAPs often employ counselors who specialize in helping employees who have lived through a traumatic incident or else can refer the victim(s) to a local crime victim counselor or other mental health specialist. EAP staff may understand the culture of the work environment and thus be better able to assist employees after an incident. Before seeking assistance from an EAP, employees should be assured that their discussions with the counselors will remain confidential.

The following list can guide employers and the union in establishing counseling services for employees:

  • Rely only upon experts in post-traumatic stress disorders and other problems facing people who have witnessed or been involved in violent incidents. Certified employee assistance professionals, psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical nurse specialists or social workers are professionals who may be qualified to provide counseling for victims.
  • Counselors should understand the types of jobs workers perform and under what conditions they perform them.
  • Recognize that counseling for certain employees may need to be long term.
  • Conversations between the counselor and employee must remain confidential.
  • Employers should work with unions to make group, individual and survivor counseling available for employees who request it.
  • Families of victims may also need counseling.
  • Develop return-to-work strategies either to the same job or a different job for affected employees.
  • If the employer is unwilling to provide counseling services, the local union may develop a list of qualified counselors in the area for members who want to seek assistance on their own.

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