Why do we have to do a workplace violence hazard assessment?
As OHS director, that’s a question upper management is likely to ask you. After all, workplace violence (WPV) hazard assessment can be a disruptive and uncomfortable process. And while anybody who follows the news knows that WPV is a major problem, the “it-can-never-happen-to-us” complacency remains firmly in place.
The simplest answer to the question “why do we have to do a WPV assessment” is because the OHS laws say so. Of course, there’s a good reason for this: Hazard assessments help identify and prevent potential problems before they explode into actual violence. But you need to do the assessment right. Here’s how.
Laying the Groundwork
Designate a competent person who has the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to do the assessment. Also keep in mind that you’re legally required to consult the joint health and safety committee (JHSC) or health and safety representative (rep)—or the workers directly if there is no JHSC or rep for the workplace. What does “consult” mean? Answer: Any one or combination of 3 things:
- Letting them participate in the planning process;
- Having them do or help in some or all of the actual assessment; and/or
- Giving them the final assessment results.
Step 1: Assess History of Violence at Your Workplace
A WPV assessment isn’t one but a series of hazard assessments each of which focuses on a set of risk factors that affect how likely violence is to occur at your workplace. The starting point is previous experiences. Having no history of violence is a good sign but not a guarantee; on the other hand, previous incidents of violence are a strong indication of risk that violence will happen in the future, especially if they happened in the not too distant past and under the same basic workplace conditions present today. Corrective actions taken after violent episodes should also enter the equation, provided that you assess their effectiveness.
Don’t limit your inquiry to incidents in which workers suffered or were threatened with bodily harm. Look also at instances of harassment, bullying and other conduct causing psychological harm understanding that these behaviours not only poison the workplace but also often trigger physical violence, as in the O.C. Transpo tragedy in when a worker who was bullied and teased because of a speech impediment finally snapped and shot 4 co-workers before turning the gun on himself.
Step 2: Assess Hazards Posed by Physical Environment
There are certain physical attributes of the workplace that impact the risks of whether violence is likely to occur there, like entry and access points, parking lots, reception and common areas, the neighbourhood, etc. Physical characteristics to consider within areas of the facility include:
- Lighting levels;
- Lighting design features, e.g., illumination upon motion detection;
- Entry and access controls, e.g., locks, card entry devices;
- Sight lines;
- Communication devices available;
- Physical obstructions; and
- Potential hiding places.
Step 3: Assess Industry-Related Risk Factors
Certain industries are at high risk of WPV due to the kinds of services they provide, including:
- Health care;
- Dispensing of pharmaceutical products;
- Police, law enforcement and security;
- Retail—especially late at night;
- Crisis intervention and counseling;
- Sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages or cannabis;
- Taxi and transit.
If you’re not sure whether your own business is high-risk, you need to talk to trade associations and other members of your industry about their own experiences.
Step 4: Assess Job-Related Risk Factors
The nature of the work performed is another significant risk factor. Thus, WPV hazards are disproportionately high for workers who handle cash or valuables, deal directly with the public or work with criminals, patients with mental illness, prisoners and other dangerous people. Consider not just what workers do but the conditions in which they do it, including the time of day, the neighbourhood, the potential for dangerous stress (e.g., working at an airline counter a flight is cancelled) and whether the worker is working alone or in isolation.
Step 5: Survey Your Workers
One of the most valuable resources for assessing WPV hazards are the workers you’re trying to protect. Looking at previous complaints and reports is a good start. But workers are often reluctant to report incidents they experience or witness. So, you need to reach out and engage them directly. One of the best methods is to have workers complete an anonymous survey relating their experiences, the threats they perceive to exist and who, where or what those threats come from. It’s also a best practice to survey supervisors separately.