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A workplace violence incident in Aurora, Illinois, highlights a concern expressed by some workplace safety experts that employers are not taking proper precautions when it comes to employee terminations.
The shooting at the Henry Pratt Co.’s facility in Aurora on Friday resulted in the death of six employees, including the gunman, and injuries to six police officers, according to a statement from parent company Mueller Water Products Inc.’s president and CEO, Scott Hall, released Saturday.
“Our focus right now is on the health and well-being of our colleagues and the families of the victims,” he said. “We are committed to providing them any and all support.”
Workplace homicides caused by intentional shootings by another person are a major workplace safety concern for employers, experts say, with 351 homicides in this category reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017, while another 47 people were stabbed to death by another person in their workplaces.
“It’s a sad commentary that we still see events like this when in many cases they are potentially preventable,” said W. Barry Nixon, Alpharetta, Georgia-based executive director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence Inc., which works with private and public organizations to develop violence prevention and response plans. “Employers are ignoring or refusing to take the kinds of actions that are necessary to reduce the likelihood of these kinds of incidents.”
“Even though businesses recognize this is a potential hazard, I still don’t think they’re doing enough internally to address it,” said Donna McEntee, Knoxville, Tennessee-based workplace safety and health solution manager at training firm Skillsoft Corp. “That’s really scary in my mind.”
The shooter, Gary Martin, was an employee at the facility and was reportedly being terminated at the time of the incident.
“I am very confident that once all the information comes out, we’ll find that there were clearly warning signs that this person was problematic,” including past behavior that may have led to the termination, Mr. Nixon said.
Ever since a workplace violence incident involving an employee of the Connecticut lottery in 1998, the best practice has been to conduct the termination off-site or to ensure the person does not have a weapon, he said. “They obviously didn’t pay attention to that,” he said. “Companies are refusing to do the kinds of things that are known that could at least potentially reduced the likelihood (of violence). You can’t say for sure, but if they had just taken a couple of measures, this thing could have gone in a different direction.”
A company spokeswoman could not be immediately reach for comment about whether it had a workplace violence prevention program in place and any policies it may have had with regards to employee terminations or employees bringing weapons on-site.
“In this day and age, every organization needs to have a process in place for employee terminations that would protect both the employee and anyone else involved in the dismissal,” Ms. McEntee said. “They even recognized that this employee was a threat. Not that he had any right to do what he did, but seems like it could have been handled a bit differently from an employer perspective.”
Whether or not to have security personnel in the room or nearby when the termination occurs should be guided by the terminated employee’s past behavior, Mr. Nixon said.
“If you have reason to suspect this person might be volatile, in that situation, yes, you can have security in the room or immediately outside of the room,” he said, citing reports that Mr. Martin was “belligerent” and previously broke workplace rules. “I don’t know the circumstances that led to his termination, but it’s probably likely we will find out there was reason to suspect this guy wasn’t just going to say ‘thank you very much,’ take his last check and leave.”
Having an emergency action plan that addresses workplace violence and active shooter situations is “a must,” as well as training human resource employees to recognize potential signs that a colleague could pose a threat such as their body language or how they phrase comments they make in the workplace, Ms. McEntee said.
“That type of training can be very helpful for those people in those types of positions to recognize who may present a threat to the organization,” she said.
Employers also need to ensure that silos that may exist within their companies do not prevent such preparations, experts say.
“Having those silos can absolutely be a barrier to a comprehensive violence prevention plan,” said Tom Lally, Cleveland-based director of training and compliance for professional training organization Cintas. “The core elements of a violence prevention program are certainly management buy-in, but then training and awareness for all employees, not just management. It’s critical that we break down those silos.”
Analyzing insurance policies for potential coverage and ensuring there are no gaps is a critical part of the process before an active shooter event because they could trigger coverage under virtually every policy, including workers compensation due to physical — and sometimes emotional — injuries to employees, experts say.
“It’s going to impact every part of your risk management program,” said John Meder, executive vice president of USI Insurance Services LLC’s risk advisory practice based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Employers will have to identify what workers comp benefits come into play depending on the state where the incident occurs, he said. “That’s not the immediate question, but it’s a question that will follow shortly in the aftermath of this type of event. What does it mean for that specific family or individual that was affected by this loss from a workers comp standpoint? What are the benefits available to them?”
Mass workplace shootings result in millions of dollars in workers compensation-related costs.