Daily Assaults on Workers a Huge, Underreported Problem, Experts Say

Nancy Grover

Chicago, IL (WorkersCompensation.com) – An upcoming court hearing will consider a class action suit by employees alleging workplace violence is a daily threat. The workers, from more than a dozen McDonald’s restaurants in the Chicago area are suing the fast food chain for failing to protect them from being regularly exposed to violent and criminal behavior by customers.

The violence alleged by these fast food workers underscores what stakeholders say is a huge but grossly underreported problem; workers in occupations that deal with the public being continually threatened and assaulted on the job. These are not the much-publicized mass shootings.

“When those happen, they are very high visibility incidents. Because of that they get a lot of attention, a lot of people talk about them. What you see is employers putting in resources to train for those things. But the reality is, those are very, very rare incidents,” said Mark Walls, VP Communications & Strategic Analysis for Safety National “On the flip side, in many occupations employees are being physically assaulted on the job every day. It doesn’t get the media attention. It doesn’t get the resources devoted to solving the problem the others do because it’s not talked about.”

Violence against healthcare workers has been the subject of much attention and preventive programs in recent years. Less discussed are the nearly daily incidents that affect employees in fast food establishments, retail stores and schools.

“Nobody wants to talk about the fact that there is violence in schools,” Walls said. “There’s not a school district in the country that wants to say ‘we have a huge problem’ because of the image it creates. But it’s a growing problem.”

The rate of workplace shootings and homicide has increased, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But many other violent incidents in the workplace go under- or unreported.

“Mass shootings and active shootings get [publicized], but start looking at what is violence in the workplace — assaults, bullying, other types of intimidation, harassment, even some issues like product tampering, where people sabotage products to cause harm, or play terrible pranks —because they are under reported, there’s no vehicle to report them, the numbers, as large as they are, are still skewed on the low side,” said Albert B. Randall, Jr., President of Franklin & Prokopik, P.C.

One problem is that victims of workplace violence often don’t want to report it. “There is fear of retaliation, becoming involved in litigation, and company culture that allows that; yelling, screaming and bullying might just be the company culture,” said Lance J. Ewing, EVP Global Risk Management & Client Services at Cotton Holdings, Inc.

“Sometimes they don’t even know who to go to,” Randall added.

The Perpetrators

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health identifies 4 types of workplace violence in terms of who is involved:

  1. Those with criminal intent in which the offender has no specific involvement with the company and the violence occurs in the commission of a crime.
  2. Customer/client relationship in which the person being served becomes angry and violent.
  3. Worker on worker, in which a current or former employee threatens or attacks another worker.
  4. Personal relationship, which typically involves a disgruntled spouse or partner of the intended victim.

“We see a tremendous amount on the comp side of customer/client issues,” Randall said. “We see a fair amount of worker on worker or personal relationship [violence].”

One area especially concerning is violence initiated by people who have professional relationships with the business, such as vendors and contractors. The situation becomes tricky for employers trying to protect their employees.

“We’re seeing business relationships changing because of these issues,” Randall said. “Maybe people are barred from entering a worksite even when there’s a business relationship. They’re told ‘you need a different person servicing us.’ We’re seeing employers are more cognizant of those types of relationships. It’s tough — there’s a business relationship and contact that needs to be fulfilled and it needs to be to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Proactive Steps

Defending organizations against claims of workplace violence can be difficult, as courts often have sympathy for the victim. “They have to be handled delicately,” Randall said, “often times with an early resolution if possible.”

Employers seeking to protect their workers need to be proactive, the experts say. The most basic steps to take are developing a workplace violence policy and providing training.

“It’s still alarming how many [companies] don’t have workplace violence policies and/or they don’t incorporate workplace violence issues as part of their training regimen,” Randall said. “A good proactive policy is to incorporate both a written policy as well as training, during orientation, but also ongoing.”

Organizations are advised to develop security plans, crisis management tools, conduct hazard analyses, and place cameras in strategic locations. Training can include a variety of methods, such as a lunch-and-learn and role playing.

For example, “a retail company training workers on what to do if a customer gets irate or how you back away slowly and put distance between you [and the customer] or a physical barrier,” Ewing said. “You also say, ‘let’s move this somewhere else’ – more to a public area. Some [people] back down if they are seen by others.”

Installing an 800 hotline for employees to report incidents or threats is also important. “You’ll get some general complaints, but you might also hear ‘hey, I saw my supervisor yelling at a colleague and putting a finger on his chest,’” Ewing said. “If we get 2 or 3 of those that is now time for HR to step in and have a side conversation or discipline [the supervisor.]”

Finally, companies should be especially cognizant of how they fire an employee. “Walking them through the corporate office in the middle of the day like a walk of shame will irritate that person,” Ewing said. It’s important when possible to “let them go with their dignity, because they go home and walk through the fact you humiliated them and they come back to cause harm.”

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