Preventing workplace violence

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Workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees nationwide. Violence in the workplace has prompted many lawsuits, and questions about how to recognize and prevent such incidents.

This article provides a general overview of employer liability for an employee’s injuries sustained due to workplace violence, and some practical guidelines for employers about how to prevent and respond to such incidents.

Employer liability

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA) require employers to provide their employees with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.

Traditionally, a Washington employer’s liability for workplace violence has been limited by the application of Washington’s Workers’ Compensation Act, which generally precludes claims against employers arising out of and in the course of employment. However, there are several common law exceptions to the exclusivity of workers’ compensation rules that allow injured workers to sue their employers.

The most common exception, the intentional tort exception, permits an employee to sue the employer when it failed to take steps necessary to prevent or eliminate a known threat or injury. In other words, an employer faces potential liability for ignoring warning signals that an employee may be violent.

An employer may be liable for negligently hiring a violent employee or for negligence in supervising the violent employee. In either case, liability may arise when an employer “knew or should have known” that either a prospective or current employee could act violently toward a co-employee or third party.

While recognizing signs of potential violent tendencies can be difficult, following are some steps an employer could take to recognize and protect its employees and others from potential harm.

Practical guidelines

  • Establish a written policy of zero-tolerance for workplace violence (including verbal and nonverbal threats) that applies to managers, employees, clients, customers, vendors, and visitors.
  • Actively communicate the workplace violence policy to employees. Employees should be aware of and alert to warning signs, along with the employee’s violence prevention plan and response, and should know where to seek advice and assistance when there may be indications of a problem.
  • Ensure that no reprisals are taken against an employee who reports or experiences workplace violence.
  • Encourage all employees to report incidents promptly and to suggest ways to reduce risks.
  • When conducting performance reviews or implementing discipline, focus on the employee’s conduct, not on the employee’s failing as a human being (i.e. employee was tardy X times in past months, versus the employee is lazy or has a bad attitude because they do not show up on time).
  • Be sensitive to the emotional needs of employees who are going through a divorce or have lost a loved one, or who are experiencing other emotional turmoil.
  • Outline a comprehensive security plan for the workplace, including establishing a liaison with law enforcement representatives.
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