Monday, January 11, 2010

Instances of workplace violence may rise as tough times keep workers feeling low

There have, in the past, been many instances of workplace violence. So much so, that seeing these outrageous and violent acts reported by the news has become, sadly, not that uncommon. So maybe news of recent workplace violence should be examined, but no more so than those cases in the past. However, these are different, and in many cases, more difficult times, as employees deal with increased workplace demands, the constant stress of bills piling up at home, and the ever-present possibility of unemployment peeking its ugly head around the corner. That isn’t to say that these acts of workplace violence are excused—to the contrary, they are just as deplorable as ever, but what if the economic turmoil continues...will the number of events increase?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate actually stayed the same in December (10%, although pockets of the U.S. have larger numbers). To some, this was championed as a win, because instead of the reoccurring pattern of increases in the unemployment rate, it steadied itself. Yet, those numbers meant little to workers, especially those with the constant fear of losing their jobs, or even those who have already lost their jobs. However, even with the increased stress and anxiety brought on by the economic tornado we are in, that does not mean employees or former employees will succumb to violent behavior—but for employers and employees alike, heightened caution in the workplace may be needed.

Take the recent shooting at ABB Group in St. Louis last Thursday by Timothy Hendron (an employee with 23 years of service) that left four people dead, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor. Here was a situation where “Timothy Hendron, [who] was among several plant employees suing the company and its trustee, Fidelity Management Trust, for an unspecified amount over ‘unreasonable and excessive fees’ related to their retirement benefits[,]” walked into his employer’s business and fired on four innocent people. While it may never be known why Mr. Hendron did what he did, and there is no evidence his violent acts were directly associated with the lawsuit, the fact that he was in the midst of a lawsuit against his company shows the kinds of employment-related problems and situations employees are facing in these tough economic times.

Per the article in the Christian Science Monitor, Larry Chavez, an expert on workplace violence, stated that “the downturn in the economy may be creating more circumstances that lead to violent outbursts…[t]here’s more pressure put on people recently because of the economy," he says. "More people have faced a dissolving of their whole career. It’s too hard to face for some people. When you have 23 years invested, that’s a lot."

Part of the reason there are so few solutions this problem is the fact that there is no specific scientific data that connects violent workplace acts with economic downturns, and yet the correlation between the two is certainly worth examining. The fact is, OSHA estimates that nearly two million workers are victims of workplace violence each year (this includes threats and physical violence, not just death), so there are problems even when times are good. So it is not beyond belief that when one combines everyday workplace and life issues with unemployment, or the constant threat of unemployment, a small problem could increase as the emotional, mental and physical toll wears on an employee.

So what is a business to do? Well, there is no way to insulate against all violent workplace acts, but steps can be taken to protect against these crimes. Some of OSHA’s recommendations are:

  • For employers to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence against or by their employees.
  • For the employer to establish a workplace violence prevention program or incorporate the information into an existing accident prevention program, employee handbook, or manual of standard operating procedures.
  • For the employer to provide safety education for employees so they know what conduct is not acceptable, what to do if they witness or are subjected to workplace violence, and how to protect themselves.
  • To secure the workplace. Where appropriate to the business, install video surveillance, extra lighting, and alarm systems and minimize access by outsiders through identification badges, electronic keys, and guards.

Of course, there are other things employers can do as well. Preemptively, employers can mandate background checks on employees, and even preemployment psychological tests can be administered, if applicable. Also, because of the high rates of layoffs and unemployment, employers may need to take more time, and spend a little more money, to ensure that those who have been displaced can access proper channels for unemployment, health care, and even job sites for future employment. While these things may cost employers—and businesses must always be aware of “the bottom-line”—the cost of this type of prevention has no monetary limits.

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