Zero Tolerance of Workplace Violence, Part 2 How to Conduct a Risk Assessment


Just how widespread is workplace violence? Consider this: Nearly two-thirds of human resources professionals recently surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said that they had experienced some form of violence at their organization since January 2000. Most of the time the violence was limited to verbal threats and inappropriate language. But sometimes it took more severe forms, including physical assaults, stabbings and shootings. While most of the survey respondents were American, Canada is hardly a haven from workplace violence. On the contrary, only three other countries experience workplace violence incidents more often than Canada.

Zero tolerance has emerged as the weapon of choice in the fight against workplace violence. But zero tolerance is in many ways more of a principle than a policy. In Part One of this article, we showed you how to turn these principles into a workable policy that you can actually enforce. That’s a big step in the right direction. But it’s not enough to solve the problem. Policies are designed to help you react to problems, not prevent them from occurring in the first place. Prevention is the key to rooting out workplace violence. In the context of workplace violence, prevention involves creating an early warning system that seeks out signs of trouble before they erupt into actual violence.

We’ll show you how to take the first step in creating such a program: Performing a workplace violence risk assessment to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities. There’s also a Model Survey on page x that you can adapt for use at your workplace.

Why You Need to Conduct a Risk Assessment

Random acts of workplace violence are impossible to prevent. But most incidents involving violence at the workplace aren’t random. They’re preceded by a number of warning signs. Although many of them are quite subtle, the warning signs are identifiable if you know what they are and how to look for them. Thus, one of the keys to preventing violence is to know what the warning signs are.

Once you know what the warning signs are, you need to establish a system for checking to see if any of them are present at your workplace. That’s the purpose of the workplace violence risk assessment. The assessment is a periodic check designed to help you identify threats and take appropriate measures to head them off.

Phase 1: Laying the Groundwork

Be warned: Workplace violence risk assessments can be a sensitive issue. Management and workers may consider them intrusive and unnecessary. “Although awareness about workplace violence has increased in recent years, there are still too many companies who believe that it can never happen to them,” according to a Toronto consultant. Safety coordinators need to overcome the denial and false sense of security to conduct threat assessments and implement an effective prevention program.

That’s why it’s important to involve workers and management in your efforts. Experts recommend that you form a working group that includes representatives of management and labour, notes the consultant. There should also be at least one member of the group from the Security, HR and EHS departments. Make sure all members of the group must understand the purposes and goals of the assessment and violence prevention program.

Phase 2: Conducting the Risk Assessment

There are two parts of a workplace violence risk assessment:

1. Examining Past Incidents

Previous experiences with violence at your own company is the first place to look for signs of trouble. “Legal protections begin with knowing what’s going on in your own workplace,” according to a former workplace coordinator with OSHA. But don’t limit your assessment to acts involving fatalities or serious injury. According to a recent FBI report, most incidents of workplace violence involve lower levels of physical force, like pushing and shoving. Although they don’t make the headlines, these cases often escalate into more serious forms of violence.

Nor should you limit your inquiry to physical acts. Workplace violence may include intimidation, harassment, bullying and verbal abuse. “Subtle” forms of abuse can explode into physical violence, like in the O.C. Transpo tragedy in Ottawa when a worker who was bullied and teased because of a speech impediment finally snapped and shot four workers before turning the gun on himself. At the very least, nonphysical violence poisons the work environment, increases absenteeism and lowers productivity. “Employers set themselves up for the most common problems and liabilities by turning a blind eye to repeated threats, intimidation and other festering problems that eventually escalate into acts of physical violence,” says the former OSHA coordinator.

2. Survey Workers to Identify Red Flags

Going over reports of previous incidents isn’t enough to detect present problems. Workers don’t always report workplace violence they witness or experience. In fact, workers tend to brush off threats, harassment and other forms of violence because they don’t think they’re a problem and don’t want to be accused of overreacting or making trouble. Hesitancy to report is especially likely if the person engaging in the violent behavior is in a position of authority, such as a supervisor.

This means you need to dig deeper when doing a workplace violence risk assessment. How? One effective method is to ask workers to complete an anonymous survey that details their experiences with workplace violence. You then need to analyze the completed surveys carefully to ferret out red flags.

Example: A U.S. company heard rumors that one of its workers was keeping a cache of weapons at home. The worker involved was extremely soft-spoken and company officials were very skeptical. But they decided to talk to other workers just to be safe. One of the questions they asked: “Is there anybody at work who makes you feel threatened or uncomfortable?” Shockingly, two workers interviewed burst into tears when asked this question. Through sobs they revealed that that soft-spoken worker had repeatedly made death threats against them. The company did a little more checking into the worker’s past and discovered that he had a history of convictions for violent criminal offenses. The company was thus able to fire the worker and head off what could have been a tragic situation.

How to Conduct a Survey

You should create a survey and give it to each worker in your organization to fill out at least once a year. Give them the option to remain anonymous to promote candid responses. Make sure yours includes:

  1. A description of what you means by workplace violence. Most workers may associate violence with physical acts only;
  2. Reassurances that workers won’t be subject to reprisals for speaking candidly;
  3. Questions about workers’ experiences involving workplace violence; and
  4. Questions about situations workers perceive to be risky.