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Chapter 7: The Workplace Violence Prevention Program

Employers who are serious about addressing workplace violence should develop, in cooperation with the union, a comprehensive written workplace violence prevention program.The following three components are essential to an effective program:

    Assessing Violence Hazards. The program should describe methods for determining the extent of the problem, documenting incidents and evaluating the program.
  • Preventing and Controlling Violence Hazards. The program should use the information gathered from the hazard assessment to implement different methods of minimizing or eliminating the risks for workplace violence.
  • Reacting to Violence (Post-Incident Response). If violence occurs, employers and workers should be prepared to deal with the aftermath.This includes assessing the causes of the problem, making appropriate changes in the workplace and providing the psychological support needed by the victims of the violence.

Workplace Violence Policies

Local unions may consider negotiating with management a formal, written workplace violence policy that defines how workers should be protected from threats, assaults, verbal abuse and harassment. Good and effective workplace violence policies should apply to all employees, including managers and supervisors. Some employers may already have a violence prevention policy aimed at protecting clients and patients from abuse. Some policies, however, may infringe upon workers’ rights and do little to actually protect workers from the threat of violence. For more information on these policies, consult the “Pitfalls” section later in this chapter.

The employer’s workplace violence policy should include the following principles:

  • Workplace violence is an occupational safety and health hazard.
  • Employees should be educated about the conditions that increase the risk of violence, and how violence can be prevented, as well as have training and practice drills on procedures to be used in the event of a violent incident.
  • Facility layout,work procedures, staffing, communication equipment and other work practices should be designed so that workers are not put — or put themselves — at risk of violence.
  • Employees who have contact with the public should be trained in defusing potentially violent situations and how to protect themselves.
  • Potentially violent clients or patients should be managed appropriately and the staff made aware of their identities.
  • Back-up support should be available for employees who request it.
  • Employees should be encouraged to report all incidents or near-misses of workplace violence, including threats.
  • All incidents or near-misses of workplace violence should be investigated, preferably by the joint labor/management safety and health committee.
  • Management should provide legal assistance to employees if they want to press charges against the assailant.
  • Management must apply rules consistently and fairly.

Pitfalls to Avoid in Developing or Implementing a Workplace Violence Prevention Program

Many workplace violence prevention programs initiated by employers are a reaction to the misconception that most violence is caused by workers.As a result, these programs often fail to protect workers from the more real problem of violence caused by clients, patients or robbers. Employer-initiated programs may also violate the contract or infringe upon workers’ rights.

Unions have a responsibility to make sure that workplace violence programs and policies are effective and fair, and reject those that are not helpful and violate the rights of the workers. Some of the common characteristics of bad policies and programs that unions should look out for are described in this section. These inadequate workplace violence prevention programs can be categorized into two types: (1) programs that omit the components necessary to make an effective workplace violence prevention program and (2) programs that contain ineffective or possibly harmful policies.

1. Programs that Miss Key Elements 
If the program omits any of the parts listed below, it may not adequately resolve the problem of workplace violence. An effective workplace violence prevention program should
include the following:

  • method for assessing hazards (see Chapter 3);
  • plan for controlling hazards and preventing violence from occurring (see Chapter 3);
  • strategy to respond when violence occurs (see Chapter 6);
  • union involvement in developing and implementing the program; and
  • management’s commitment to fully and effectively implement the program.

2. Programs that Include Bad Elements 
The policies described in this section generally result from management’s attempt to address only the type of violence occurring among workers and managers rather than the more common types of violence committed by patients, clients and intruders. In addition to addressing only one type of violence, they often infringe on the rights of the worker and union. Such management policies to watch out for include:

A. profiles of potentially violent workers
B. psychological tests 
C. “zero-tolerance” policies 
D. threat assessment teams 
E. policies that exclude the union 
F. one-sided management policies and 
G. management’s failure to manage.

A. Profiles
Employers often attempt to match workers to certain violent traits on a list of “profiles” in order to predict who will become violent in the future. Management consultants often use these profiles to make money by allegedly helping employers to “recognize” potentially violent employees before they are hired, how to identify any current employees who may become violent, and how to discipline, fire and “downsize” employees without violence.

Most professionals have serious problems with profiling. These problems include:

  • Sometimes these profiles may be useful in the hands of trained professionals, but managers and untrained persons can use these profiles to label and harass workers.
  • After a violent incident occurs, it is easy to fit the assailant into a profile, but most people who fit lots of items on a profile will never become violent.
  • Almost anyone can become violent if pushed beyond a certain point.
  • Profiles sometimes use race, sex or age criteria that may violate anti-discrimination laws.
  • Profiles can make things worse if an employee who may indeed become violent is singled out in a negative way.
  • The period of time that profiling can be used to predict violent behavior is often too short to be of much value. Employers should take responsibility for employees who truly exhibit threatening behavior that has a potential for violence, not just because they fit a certain profile.

B. Psychological tests
Like profiling, psychological testing of workers for violent tendencies attempts to predict which employees will commit future violence. Often done as part of the pre-employment process, psychological testing policies that try to separate the safe workers from the potentially violent ones may be impractical and illegal. Although employers may have a legal responsibility to avoid
negligent hiring, administering psychological tests may raise confidentiality issues as well as infringe upon rights workers have under such laws as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Furthermore, psychological tests may not be effective or reliable. Experience with psychological tests has shown that most perpetrators commit violence at a time beyond the predictive scope of the tests.

C. “Zero-tolerance” policies
These are policies that prohibit certain behavior or comments and are often some employers’ only response to workplace violence hazards. Although it is important for managers and workers to have clear guidelines for unacceptable behavior — especially unacceptable behavior such as actual physical assaults by employees on management or co-workers — there are several problems with zero-tolerance policies.

First, some employers believe that just issuing a piece of paper, which prohibits employees from doing or saying violent things will prevent workplace violence, regardless of what other working conditions may be contributing to a violent atmosphere. In addition, a zero-tolerance policy may ignore the contract and violate the principle of progressive discipline. Finally, a zero-tolerance policy may go too far in defining threatening language or behavior.

Zero-tolerance polices may be abused by management. For instance, a supervisor may find it easy to intentionally provoke an employee into losing his or her temper. The employee may never be given a chance to defend or explain his or her comments or behavior. Under some zero-tolerance policies, making an offhand, not serious, comment or innocent joke, no matter what the circumstances, may be grounds for immediate dismissal.

Some zero-tolerance policies define “threatening language” as a cause for automatic dismissal. Because of the cultural diversity in American society, however, people of varying ethnic, racial, religious, generational or economic groups may use different language and gestures to express themselves. Natural and harmless expressions by one group may be perceived by another as aggressive and threatening. For example, a person’s voice may become louder and her gestures more animated when she gets excited, not necessarily because she is angry or hostile.While any kind of hostile or threatening language is not acceptable in the workplace, some language may be misinterpreted.

When negotiating any kind of zero-tolerance policy with management, it is important to review the contract to determine if any workplace violence prevention policy violates any of the contract provisions or can be used by management to harass employees.

D. Threat assessment teams
Threat assessment teams, also called crisis intervention teams, are sometimes created by management to enforce zero-tolerance policies. Generally, the purpose of these teams is to receive, investigate and respond to reports of threats to determine the potential for violence. Some teams even go so far as to try to defuse a potentially violent situation.

Teams that only try to identify potentially violent situations and recommend procedures for responding to those situations may be effective in curbing internal problems of violence, as long as they don’t take actions that might endanger themselves or anyone else. For a team to be effective, it should have an equal number of trained managers and union representatives. Such teams should also include mental health professionals.Without proper training and years of experience in a mental health discipline, lay people are likely to reach wrong conclusions and may put themselves and others at risk in dangerous situations.

E. Policies that exclude the union
Workplace violence programs or threat assessment teams that do not have union-designated representatives will have little credibility with employees, tend to blame non-management workers for problems and will inevitably fail to effectively address the problem of workplace violence.

F.One-sided management policies
Policies that are not applied equally to both managerial and nonmanagerial employees may lead to further labor/management conflict. All violence prevention strategies, particularly zero-tolerance policies, should be applied equally to all levels of employees since managers and supervisors can also cause physical violence, threats and harassment. Since workers may have violence-related problems with their supervisors, these policies may have little credibility with employees.

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