The threat of violence in the workplace is a growing concern among both employers and employees.

A Ferguson Enterprises employee talks with police officers outside the building where two employees were shot and killed in Pelham, Ala. (AP/World Wide Photo)
When violence strikes in the workplace, as it did in August at the Pelham, Ala., branch of Ferguson Enterprises, companies are forced to re-examine the security and response procedures they have established.

The subject of workplace violence is top-of-mind with security directors at Fortune 1000 companies surveyed by Pinkerton's, a security company based in Westlake Village, Calif. That issue rose to No. 1 in importance, up from second place last year, on a list of the 10 most important security threats in Pinkerton's sixth annual survey, released this year.

Workplace violence is defined as any act against an employee that creates a hostile work environment and which negatively affects the employee, either physically or psychologically, according to the Security Industry Association.

On average, 20 workers are murdered each week in the United States, while another 18,000 are victims of nonfatal workplace assaults, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, reported by the American Society for Industrial Security. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that more than 2 million people are victims of violent crime at work per year.

An analysis of physical attacks on 2,500 workers by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. found that 44% were committed by customers or clients; 24% by strangers; 20% by co-workers; 7% by bosses; and 3% by former employees, as reported by ASIS.

A 1995 study by The Workplace Violence Research Institute estimates the cost of workplace violence at more than $36 billion annually, which can be attributed to loss of productivity, work disruptions, employee turnover, litigation and legal costs and other incident-related costs.

Employers who fail to stop workplace violence could be in violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's general duty requirement that employers are required to provide employees with a reasonably safe working environment, says attorney Kevin Prendergast, in a recent interview with Security magazine, a sister publication of Supply House Times.

One way to address workplace violence is to hire smart, Prendergast says. Have an experienced professional interview prospective employees and conduct in-depth background checks.

Corporate security directors are responding to internal threats to work- place safety by integrating enhanced pre-employed safeguards and employee procedures, such as background checks and personal integrity testing, according to the Security Industry Market Overview 1999-2000, from the Security Industry Association.

Steps to take

Three key steps recommended by SIA to prevent workplace violence are:

  • Develop pre-employment selection procedures to identify "high-risk" applicants;

  • Provide employees with a 24-hour communication hotline where they can report their concerns on a confidential basis; and

  • Restrict or monitor entry or movement of individuals with access controls, such as card keys, video surveillance or photo badges.

"With workplace violence it is extremely important that managers and supervisors be educated to signs of violence," says George Macnamara, who has been director of corporate security at Hughes Supply Co. in Orlando, Fla., for six years. "Perform psychological profiles to identify people with a propensity for violent behavior. Encourage employees to report incidents that indicate violence.

"Most importantly, have some kind of employee-assistance program so they don't let things get bottled up inside of them," Macnamara says.

Ferguson Enterprises, based in Newport News, Va., was subjected to a violent incident in August at its Pelham, Ala., branch that resulted in the deaths of two employees. Steven Roznowski, Ferguson's vice president/human resources, says that within four hours of the first report of the shooting, both he and Larry Stoddard, a regional vice president, arrived in Alabama to meet with the families of the victims, coordinate counseling services and help Ferguson employees prepare to return to work.

Emergency response guidelines are essential in the event that such an incident occurs, Roznowski says.

Reaction should be as quick as possible, but employers should be certain the individuals on the scene have the expertise to handle the situation, Roznowski says.