Violence in the workplace

Your company safety program should address threats of violence

Roofing contractors face numerous challenges when it comes to employee safety. Typically, when roofing contractors think of safety, fall protection, ladder safety, fire prevention and hazard communication come to mind. But there's another haunting risk contractors face: workplace violence. According to 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the fourth leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the U.S. is workplace violence. Workplace violence is a real threat and often overlooked when contractors develop their overall risk management programs.

What is it?

Before you develop any type of program focusing on workplace violence, it is vital you understand what it is. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines it as any act of physical violence, threat of violence (including harassment and intimidation), or other threatening behavior that can create a risk to the health and safety of an employee or employees in the workplace. It can range from online threats, verbal threats or petty criminal acts to more serious threats, such as robbery or homicide. It can take many forms, including:

  • Verbal or written threats. These can be any expression with the intent to cause harm.
  • Verbal abuse. Abuse can include insults, swearing and/or patronizing language.
  • Harassment. This is the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands (including those of a sexual nature), that can take the form of words, gestures, bullying and other inappropriate actions.
  • Threatening behavior. This includes hand gestures, damaging property, and throwing or slamming objects.
  • Physical attacks. Pushing, hitting, kicking or inflicting physical harm to someone are all considered physical attacks.

Who's at risk?

BLS estimates more than 100,000 roofing workers, helpers and laborers are in the field on a typical day in the roofing industry. In addition to the risks of personal confrontations common to all human interaction, risks can increase when certain factors occur. Among those factors that have increased risk are working alone or in small groups, during nighttime hours or early morning hours, and in high-crime areas or isolated areas.

Roofing work can take place in all these situations though most violent incidents are carried out by someone the victim knows. I remember seeing two brothers get into a fight on a rooftop. The roofing industry, like many other industries, is full of individuals with strong personalities. Sometimes, personalities don't see eye to eye and fights can break out. In most cases, it goes without saying, violence easily can occur simply because the opportunity presents itself.

Although the case of the two brothers fighting did not lead to a fatality, the situation could have been avoided. There were many indicators leading up to their fight: scuffles in the parking lot, co-workers' stories of arguments between the two, rumors of off-hour fights and even requests by one of the brothers to be put on a different crew. These critical signs should not have been overlooked and should have been addressed immediately.

What can you do?

The best thing to do is develop a job-specific policy to address potential workplace violence. Policies can vary, but a few specific things you should consider include:

  • Facility/site assessment. Assess all facilities or sites for potential risks, including type of business, access to the public, potential stress associated with the job, how terminations and discipline are handled at the home facility and while at off-site locations, and unique site risks that come with off-site locations. Determine how to protect these areas with lighting, door locks, gates, guards, etc.
  • Setting security procedures. Determine who responds to incidents and how they will respond. For instance, you will need to address how terminations will take place and who will be present. Never allow in-person terminations to take place if there is a potential risk of violence. Telephone calls, certified letters or emails are acceptable means of terminations.
  • Chain of responsibility. Determine who is responsible for the program's specific duties, such as reporting, reviewing of complaints and handling discipline.
  • Reporting procedures. Consider how to report incidents and who will receive the reports.
  • Response procedures. Develop pre-determined responses to typical or possible workplace violence situations. Designate an individual to respond to issues with clear plans such as job changes, suspension or termination.
  • Training all employees. It is vital to train all employees about all program elements.

It is important employees understand any act or claim of workplace violence will be investigated thoroughly and management is fully committed to their safety.

In addition to enforcing a workplace violence policy, you also can do the following:

  • Ask employees whether they feel safe and to provide examples of experiences that may influence specific policy requirements.
  • Determine whether there are any significant risks your employees may face when it comes to workplace violence.
  • Investigate any history of violence within other companies in your area and determine how those risks may affect your company. This could include local news reports, police reports, local association reports and/or other relevant sources of information.
  • Develop instructions for employees entering work locations in high-crime areas. These could be buddy systems, facility escorts and/or police assistance.
  • Create specific written rules and a policy that includes a worker's right to refuse to provide services under a hazardous situation.
  • Ensure employees on the job have cell phones and emergency contacts so they can report uncomfortable situations.
  • Make sure vehicles are kept in well-lit, secure areas to avoid possible conflicts and situations leading to theft or damage. Place vehicles, equipment, materials, etc., in secure places to avoid needless exposure. Secure worksites whenever possible by using additional fencing, lighting and security guards.

Not only can policies help protect employees from needless harassment and possible violence, but comprehensive policies, when enforced, can protect employers, as well.

For example, in a case where a social service coordinator was killed while making a home visit to a client (Secretary of Labor v. Integra Health Management Inc., OSHRC No. 13-1124), the coordinator repeatedly had submitted work notes that showed reasonable concern of danger in going to that client's household alone. She was later stabbed to death. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission determined the employer's workplace violence program was inadequate and the employer did not heed warnings and concerns regarding her safety.

As a result, the company faced the tragic loss of an employee, a workers' compensation death case and serious citation under OSHA's general duty clause.

A workplace violence policy could have spared the social service coordinator's life and spared the company legal defense. There are some great resources (such as available to help you determine whether certain job sites or locations may pose additional risks. In most cases, local employees, clients and police stations will provide insight to where dangerous areas are within the community.

What can employees do?

Sometimes, little can be done to avoid workplace violence, but your employees should know what it is and how to take steps to avoid it. Employees must:

  • Know the company's workplace violence policy and how to avoid situations at the office and job sites. Explain to employees they should walk away from violent situations, and no matter how small a situation may seem, never minimize it and report issues immediately.
  • Understand employees should contact supervisors and/or company representatives regarding any workplace violence concerns, and they should report everything immediately in written form (handwritten, text or email).
  • Insist workers travel in groups or use the buddy system when feeling uncomfortable about a situation.

Workplace violence can come from within the company's walls or outside of them. It is vital employees are trained how to immediately recognize and report signs of potential workplace violence, any suspicious activity, and an uncomfortable feeling about somebody or someplace.

A real threat

According to OSHA, a well-written and implemented workplace violence prevention program combined with administrative controls and training can reduce the incidence of workplace violence.

Although there isn't a one-size-fits-all program for every company, employers and employees should understand the potential for risks for workplace violence and take the necessary actions to reduce the risks.

Rich Trewyn is an NRCA director of enterprise risk management.



Be the first to comment. Please log in to leave a comment.