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It’ll Never Happen to You, But What if it Does?

Dramatic traumatic events, like the Oklahoma beheading at the Vaughn Foods front office on September 25, is not likely to happen in your company, but what if the unspeakable should happen? Maybe something less dramatic but still traumatic could happen.

Can you avert a crisis? How would you handle it if something terrible happens?

It could happen to you
The statistics on workplace violence are startling. According to the CDC, homicides in the workplace average 700 per year. “From 2003 to 2012 over half of the workplace homicides occurred within three occupation classifications: sales and related occupations (28%), protective service occupations (17%), and transportation and material moving occupations (13%).” The number of nonfatal violent crimes was 572,000 in one year (2009).

Even nonterrorist or noncriminal activity can produce trauma in the workplace. A tragic accident can affect your staff and operations.

The result to your company if something terrible should happen: incalculable losses to impacted employees (e.g., their psychological trauma), plus direct and indirect actual costs to your business (e.g., disruption in operations, added costs for remedial actions).

What are your obligations?

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “[n]o federal law explicitly establishes an employer’s duty to prevent or remedy workplace violence against employees. However, employers must comply with the general duty clause [Section 5(a)(1)] of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which states that each employer must furnish a place of employment that is ‘free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.’”

But of course small business owners feel a personal connection with their staff and want to be sure their workers are safe. Being aware of the risks that can befall a company is the first step in preparedness.

Encourage workers to express their concerns to a designated person if a co-worker is acting erratically or there is a domestic violence threat that could spill over into the workplace (the designated person can be the owner or anyone else who is clearly identified for this purpose), making sure of confidentiality and a promise of any necessary follow-up or support. The FBI has a sample threat assessment questionnaire that you can use.

While there’s no way to absolutely ensure a terrible act of violence won’t occur in your company, there are some preventive measures you can take to minimize your risk:

  • Think “security.” This means limiting access if appropriate, using security cameras, and if you use security guards, making sure they are well trained.
  • Hire smartly. While there’s no guarantee, doing background checks on job applicants may help to avoid problem employees. But watch legalities about what you can and cannot check (e.g., some states bar inquiries about an applicant’s prior criminal past).
  • Do risk assessment. Periodically revisit what’s going on in your company—your staff, your security measures, your neighborhood’s activities.
  • Create an emergency action plan. When something occurs, make sure employees know what to do. This may include, for example, training employees in CPR.

Crisis management
Ok, you’ve done everything possible to prevent a workplace tragedy, but one happens nonetheless. This could be the result of a civil riot, a domestic or foreign terrorist attack, or other unexpected event. In the aftermath, what will you do? Do you know how to obtain trauma counseling for your staff?

Last thought
When taking any action, make sure that what you’re doing, or planning on doing, is legal. If you have questions, talk with an employment law attorney.