Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – What’s the best way to mitigate potential workplace violence during the pandemic? Have there been changes in demographic trends related to recent incidents? What legal elements should a risk manager be aware of in setting violence policy? These are among the many questions workplace violence experts are increasingly being asked.
The buildup of stress in the last 18 months has played out in various violent workplace incidents and there have been some changes associated. For example, workplace shootings are being committed by workers in their 50s, rather than younger workers. These incidents are also more likely to occur on a Saturday, during the afternoon/evening hours, and in public spaces and manufacturing facilities.
“Those are some of the changes in the general environment. The question is: are those changes transitory or permanent?” asked Hart Brown, SVP of R3 Continuum. “What I’d suggest, based on previous trends, is that these are likely to continue for the next few years; an older demographic, on weekends, later in the day during off hours.”
Brown was among the speakers conducting a recent Question-and-Answer session on workplace violence during the pandemic and best practices organizations can use to mitigate problems.
Question: Some employees are getting angry and agitated about having to wear a face mask in the workplace. What are your suggestions to best handle these?
“What I think we’re dealing with now is we’re still seeing different areas going back to mask mandates, some are not. There’s even more inconsistency and confusion,” said George L. Vergolias, R3’s Medical Director. “That leads to more room for people to argue and potential touchpoints for conflict.”
Vergolias outlined several tactics to diffuse anger among employees.
- Respect personal space. “When having a disagreement and you get up into their space it really ups the ante, the emotional charge,” Vergolias said. “You want to be very respectful of that.”
- Stay calm and focused on the desired resolution. Your thoughts, feelings, body posture and tone of voice indicate if you are getting agitated or overly fearful, which can exacerbate the situation.
- Keep interactions short and simple – if possible.
- Argue with the argument, not the person. “There’s a big difference between me saying, ‘Shane, you’re wrong,’ as opposed to, ‘here’s the issue I have with that perspective,’” Vergolias said. “The more you can attack or confront the argument vs. the person, you are going to take out of the equation ego, self-esteem. That keeps it a little more civil and focused on the facts, or lack of.”
- The 3-question technique. The first question is, ‘can you teach me your perspective,’ such as, ‘can you teach me why you think masks are a waste of time?’ He advises listening closely and reflecting back what the person said. The second question is, ‘do you think I understand your perspective?’ Once the person agrees, the third question is, ‘can I teach you my perspective?’
“What you’re doing is enhancing that communication, enhancing understanding,” he said. “At the core of verbal and even most violence conflict is a lack of understanding of what the other person is dealing with and what their perspectives are. And when that communication breaks down, escalation can often occur.”
Question: What statutes and legal aspects should we be aware of regarding this topic?
“I get this question quite often,” Brown said. “Here’s the challenge in the current environment; there’s not necessarily for all organizations one place to go.”
Companies should be aware of any legislation that may affect them within jurisdictions. Litigation is another aspect to consider. “What is the case law? What things have been litigated in your state and fines or penalties levied,” Brown said. “Keep in mind, perceived foreseeability – how foreseeable was the event from the organization’s perspective?”
He also advises knowing how a particular jurisdiction views pain and suffering and mental anguish. Negligent hiring, negligent training, negligent security may be potential risks. “That may help you base your decision on how to move forward,” he said.
Question: Can reporting a notable mental concern about a co-worker be a possible protected health information issue?
“Yes, indeed it can,” Vergolias said. “What’s important to understand is while it can be an issue of PHI, there are a number of checks and balances in place that, at least for now, defer to organizations to allow them to keep their workplaces safe.”
OSHA, for example has guidelines and requirements with language around due diligence and the responsibility of organizations to keep their workplaces safe. Other associations have also issued standards and/or best practices.
“The point and key takeaway is that most jurisdictions, most courts and caselaw recognize the workplace has a right to keep its location, its physical site and its workers safe. What we’ve seen when an organization feels they need to disclose [information] for safety reason, they are usually in very good company by case law,” Vergolias said. “That said, if you’re considering reporting about somebody, maybe seek legal input.”
Organizations should have in place a process and/or specific people who can investigate such concerns in a fair and unbiased manner. And employees should be aware of it.
“What we don’t want to see is somebody has a concern, ‘Joe is acting erratic, he’s saying threatening things, but I’m afraid to tell because I don’t want Joe to get fired.’ And three weeks later Joe brings a gun into work” and commits violence, Vergolias said. “We deal with tragic events on the back end. What we see time and again after violent acts is people come forward and say, ‘I knew something was wrong with this guy, I wish I had said something.’”