Cornell University

December 22 2012

Workplace Violence Prevention

Risk assessment a first step for increased safety on the job, Brown says.

As the nation grapples with the Connecticut shooting tragedy and many consider the safety of their own job sites, ILR's workplace safety expert shares information she uses to help school personnel and others prevent or mitigate violent incidents.

"Do a formal risk assessment and put together a workplace team with different expertise and points of view," said Nellie Brown of the Worker Institute at Cornell.

Brown recommends a sample workplace violence prevention program offered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at www.osha.gov. Three aspects of risk evaluation -- site assessment, employee surveys and records review – are included in the program.

Each aspect provides different kinds of information on risk factors and past problems, "so see what they have to tell you. Then, tackle the revealed problems in an orderly way."

For example, Brown said, "Look at your buildings. Is there enough lighting in the parking lot? That's where many assaults occur. Restrict access to buildings or decide what parts of a building are to be open to the public and what areas are restricted."

"Are there lockable bathrooms for the staff? Bathrooms are places would-be perpetrators can lie in wait for victims."

The risk assessment process should indicate patterns of problems that can be made into sample scenarios for use in drills and other training, Brown said. "Take employees through scenarios, such as a lockdown procedure."

"Practice communication skills, so that if a perpetrator approaches you, you can try to get the person talking. If a person feels they've been 'heard,' they will sometimes calm down," she said.

Surveying employees, she said, can uncover harassment, bullying and unfairness, Brown said. "When not dealt with by an employer, these could become motivations for violence by victims who see no other way out."

The workplace can become the default setting for violence for people who are having problems in their personal lives, Brown said.

"A violent individual might not be able to reach the victim anywhere else, but knows where the victim works. An employer could encourage victims of domestic violence to discuss the problem and let the employer know if there is an order of protection."

Those steps increase the likelihood that a violent individual could reach the victim and that police can be quickly summoned, she said.

"Certainly you can't always prevent violence – humans can be very unpredictable. Even though you can't make it a perfect world, but you can do a lot to reduce risk."