The last several months have opened this country’s eyes to the fact that sexual harassment is a real and serious problem in many American workplaces. What some people may not know is that sexual harassment is considered a type of workplace violence.
Workplace violence is a broad term that includes bullying, harassment and physical assault. Workplace violence can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical attacks and homicides. It also includes ganging up on someone, intimidation, robbery, malicious damage to property and concealing or brandishing a weapon.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), each week in the U.S., an average of 20 workers are murdered and 18,000 are assaulted while at work. However, the true number is likely much higher. Like sexual harassment, many instances of workplace violence are not reported.
Workplace violence can be a tough topic to address in the construction industry, where a more casual, non-traditional work environment is often the norm. Workplace violence doesn’t always start as an extreme situation. However, employers must be ready to assess and respond to behavior or a situation that crosses the line. This includes having a procedure for employees to report their concerns.
No employee should have to worry that a co-worker or anyone else at the worksite is a threat to them. Workers who feel uncomfortable, offended or threatened may be too intimidated to say anything. Not speaking up can negatively impact overall site safety and the health and well-being of individual members.
A policy that clearly explains what to do in the event of bullying and other disruptive conduct can keep the behavior from escalating. It also reassures employees that these situations will not be tolerated. Even workplaces where everyone gets along most of the time aren’t immune to dealing with workplace violence. An employee who witnesses workplace violence, such as a coworker’s domestic dispute that spills into the workplace, may not feel comfortable reporting it.
Best Practices to Prevent Workplace Violence
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate violence in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take appropriate steps to prevent and correct unlawful harassment and other inappropriate behavior. Employers should strive to create an environment where employees feel free to raise concerns and are confident those concerns will be addressed.
The following best practices can guide employers in preventing and responding to workplace violence:
- Clearly communicate to all employees that unwelcome harassing conduct will not be tolerated.
- Develop an effective policy.
- Establish an effective complaint or grievance process.
- Provide anti-workplace violence training to supervisors and all employees.
- Take immediate action when an employee reports an incident.
Following the best practices above can help employers avoid these common mistakes that can contribute to violence in the workplace:
1. A policy that is misunderstood, out of date or nonexistent
Make sure policies and programs are able to be understood by all workers. Review the policy every year to ensure it continues to adequately address workplace violence risks.
2. Not handling threats properly
Establish a team of designated, specially trained supervisors and employees to assess situations that arise in the workplace. This prevents one person from being forced to decide if there really is a threat and what should be done about it.
3. Assuming employees know what to do
Common reasons why threats are not reported by employees include:
- Fear of getting involved
- Fear of retaliation
- Not recognizing the threat
4. Minimal or no training
Employees should undergo annual training to ensure they recognize various threats and know what actions to take to stay safe.
5. No relationships outside of the workplace or list of resources
A company should establish contacts with local law enforcement, security firms, psychologists and legal experts and provide employees with names, phone numbers and website information.
For more information, see OSHA’s page on Workplace Violence Prevention Programs and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s page on harassment.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]