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Don't skimp on vigilance despite low odds of workplace violence

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SAN DIEGO — Employers should actively train and encourage their employees to be on the lookout for and report obvious and not-so-obvious signs their co-workers could become violent.

In 2014, 404 workplace homicides and 271 workplace suicides occurred in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But lessons on preventing violent workplace incidents can be learned from events such as the December 2015 San Bernardino, California, shooting that killed 14 at a government office, Suzanne Rhulen Loughlin, founder and executive vice president of crisis management company Firestorm Solutions L.L.C. based in Roswell, Georgia, said at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.'s annual conference in San Diego last week.

Many workplace violence incidents can be traced back to the hiring, firing and discipline process, the results of which could have been different if the employees committing the violence felt they had been heard and managed properly, said Firestorm's Chairman and CEO Harry Rhulen.

“Just because we terminate someone, doesn't get rid of our problem,” Ms. Rhulen Loughlin said.

Employers can mitigate the risk of violent incidents by actively engaging with and training employees to recognize internal and external hostilities, said Denise Balan, New York-based senior vice president, head of crisis management insurance business in the United States, for XL Catlin.

Some signs of a potentially violent employee are more obvious than others, such as bullying behavior and threats against another employee or themselves, and should not be ignored, experts said.

“There are always warning signs,” Ms. Rhulen Loughlin said. “People don't just snap.”

In the San Bernardino incident, for example, the shooter had gotten into a fight with a co-worker about religion and had been mocked and disparaged about his beard, she said.

Less obvious signs of potential problems are divorce or substance abuse, experts said.

“So many times when we talk to the employees after the fact they say 'I didn't want to get involved,' ” Mr. Rhulen said. “It's part of an education process. If they understand the behaviors of concern, if they have a methodology for reporting them, especially the kind of methodology that's anonymous, you're going to get a lot more information. And if you've got the appropriate program in place, you'll know what to do with that information.”

The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration offer free and valuable information to help small and mid-size companies form cost-effective prevention plans, Ms. Balan said.

“The odds that you're going to have a shooting in your workplace are one in many millions,” Ms. Rhulen Loughlin said. “Does that mean we don't prepare for it? Absolutely not. We have a duty to. OSHA requires us to provide a safe workplace.”

In February, XL Catlin launched an insurance policy designed to help midsize companies in the U.S. respond and recover from workplace violence by covering expenses including public relations counsel, medical care, employee counseling, legal liability and business interruption, with limits up to $25 million. The policy arose from conversations with clients looking for ways to expand employee assistance and training programs to prevent such acts, Ms. Balan said. Some of the advice given to employers includes addressing chronic verbal abuse and monitoring intensive workloads or favoritism that can make employees disgruntled, she said.