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Workplace violence prevention starts with comprehensive employee training

Teach employees how to report concerns

Workplace violence prevention starts with comprehensive employee training

A comprehensive program to prevent workplace gun violence begins with vigilance and teaches employees to know whether to run, hide or fight back. Workplace violence prevention experts recommend that employers train employees to be aware of security breaches, aberrant behavior and other potential threats, and require that they report such incidents to a centralized repository where a cross-functional threat assessment team can review them and recommend risk mitigation measures to implement.

Employers also should have an emergency response plan in place that includes communication protocols, provides pertinent building and facility information to local law enforcement officials, and trains employees how to protect themselves, experts say.

If an incident does occur, employers should contract with crisis behavioral health care providers to address any lasting effect on employees individually and the organization as a whole, experts advise.

“I've never encountered a situation where there hasn't been 20 different signs that something was going to happen. A lot of people knew about it, but they didn't know what to do, so they didn't take action,” said Dr. Teresa Bartlett, senior vice president of medical quality at Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. in Troy, Michigan. “It's kind of like when you're in an airport: "When you see something, say something.' It's got to be ingrained in the culture.”

“Whether it's risk management or the security department, they can't really do anything about a situation unless we know about it,” said Regan Rychetsky, director of health and human services, enterprise risk management and safety for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in Austin, Texas.

“The indicators are always there, whether it's workplace violence, school, college, whatever. It's just whether or not we're collecting them and getting them to the right people,” said Rick Shaw, CEO of Awareity Inc., a Lincoln, Nebraska, firm that conducts post-mortem assessments of incidents of workplace violence.

There were at least 60 incident reports prior to the April 16, 2007, shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, but the school had no central repository to collect that data, such as a dedicated database where all of these various types of information could be stored and analyzed, he said.

“They just didn't have a way of collecting and connecting the dots,” Mr. Shaw said. “What if all of the Virginia Tech incident reports were routed to a threat assessment team?”

Following a handful of workplace violence incidents several years ago, including one that resulted in a fatality, Mr. Rychetsky developed a computer-based workplace violence awareness training program that all 54,000 of the Texas commission's employees are required to take as new hires and biennially.

“Some employees didn't know how to report, so we wanted to make sure that we got that information out to employees,” he said.

Reports are submitted electronically and emailed to mailboxes set up for the region, state office and director's office. They can also be printed and faxed if email is down. The reports are reviewed by incident management teams in each of the commission's 11 regions whose “only focus is to assess and manage threats of violence in the workplace,” Mr. Rychetsky said.

A multidisciplinary group within the region that is familiar with Texas HHS' workplace violence policies and procedures conducts “roundtable discussions to determine whether or not we believe the threat to be credible based on the information we have, and then we determine what mitigating actions need to be taken as far as security, safety, information going out to staff,” Mr. Rychetsky said. Group members include regional director, business manager, agency regional directors, risk/safety and others as needed.

Mr. Rychetsky said he is preparing to update the program, which won a national achievement award from the Public Risk Management Association in 2009, with new information on responding to an active shooter in the workplace, using the City of Houston's six-minute “Run. Hide. Fight.” video.

“It's quick, intense. It gets the information across. It's probably the best that I've seen for such a short video,” Mr. Rychetsky said.

In the “Run. Hide. Fight.” video, a group of male employees who locked themselves in a copy machine room open the door and hit the shooter with a table.

In addition to regularly practicing emergency situations through simulations or drills to show employees how to evacuate or take cover if there is an active shooter in the workplace, Sedgwick's Dr. Bartlett recommends that employees be trained “to identify when somebody has a dramatic change in their personality — for example, a colleague who used to be a happy person who now doesn't talk to anybody and is very distraught. Or say someone is sitting at their desk, talking to themselves about going to their car to get a gun.”

In such a situation, an employer is within its rights to refer that employee to an employee assistance program to undergo a “fitness for duty” evaluation, Dr. Bartlett said. “It's well within management's purview to tell them "We don't want you coming back to work unless you get some care,'” she said.

“I don't think we're doing enough educating people. We all need to be vigilant, and management needs to respond immediately,” said Dr. Ewa Antonowicz, clinical director at ComPsych Corp., an EAP based in Chicago.

According to Dr. Antonowicz, red flags such as extreme emotions, erratic behavior and isolation from others “all need to be taken seriously. Sometimes management is afraid of sitting down with those employees and having that one-on-one discussion. We cannot predict violence. If we could, there would be no violence in this world. Employers need to have workplace violence policies and procedures in place and make sure that management and employees are educated on those policies and procedures.”

In response to lessons learned from recent incidents of workplace violence, policies to prevent and respond to such incidents “have been expanded beyond focusing on actual violence to also encompass threats, intimidations, use of physical force that endangers or causes a person to be fearful. It's now a "reasonable person test,'” said Bob VandePol, executive director of the EAP program at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, a Grand Rapids, Michigan, behavioral health service provider, and former president of Crisis Care Network, a Wyoming, Michigan, firm that provided critical-incident re-sponse services to Virginia Tech in the wake of the 2007 shootings.

“A lot of workplace violence professionals identify four stages of a program: prevention, mitigation, response and post-incident. EAP has a place at the table in each of those,” Mr. VandePol said. “They can be engaged in training on violence prevention, conflict management, stress and anger management. They can also be engaged in development of reporting procedures and policies. If there are some warning signs, they can be a resource for referral to counseling. They can also provide fitness for duty evaluations.”

The EAP also can be part of a threat-assessment team, said Mr. VandePol.

“Post-incident, an EAP can be involved in consulting and building communications, fatality announcements and resilience briefing,” he said.

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