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Train employees to spot predictable signs of workplace violence: Experts

Active shooter

SAN DIEGO — Active shooter incidents do not occur “out of the blue,” making it critical for employers to train their employees to identify and report suspicious behaviors and for employers to quickly respond to such reports and intervene, according to a safety expert for Pepsi-Cola.

Employers should ensure that they have – and that employees are familiar with – mechanisms for reporting such behaviors and that the employers have defined what they consider to be reportable behavior well before a potential incident, according to other safety experts. 

An active shooter incident in the workplace is never “out of the blue,” Lev Pobirsky, Philadelphia-based senior director of safety and security for Pepsi-Cola and National Brand Beverages Ltd., said at a Monday afternoon session of the National Safety Council Congress and Expo in San Diego.

The first step is ensuring that violence or a “toxic work environment” is not permitted, and that employees and supervisors are able to identify potential threats and know how to report them, said Mr. Pobirsky, who also consults on workplace violence and active shooter mitigation.

“Pepsi says no threat is too small,” he said. “If you say something, write something, text something, tweet something” violent, the threat assessment team convenes to discuss the issue and determine next steps.

Maintaining mechanisms for voicing complaints or concerns is key, and employers should also create a work environment that promotes sincerity and open and timely lines of communications, said Jack Johnson, CEO of San Antonio, Texas-based Zion Safety and Security and senior consultant at SafeStart, a division of Electrolab Ltd., told attendees at a Tuesday morning session.

“Look for the signs of workplace violence,” he said.

Pre-defining what may be considered suspicious behavior to encourage peer reporting can also help prevent a violent event before it occurs, said Tom Miller, CEO of ClearForce Inc., a risk management and data analytics company based in Vienna, Virginia.

“People are afraid to report information they don’t think is significant or substantial,” he said during a phone interview.

Employers may encourage reporting by outlining 10 to 15 types of behaviors that could be relevant to warding off an incident, said Mr. Miller, such as a noticing a co-worker who appears to be suffering from extreme stress or acting out negatively at the workplace.

Anonymity in reporting is also key, so that employees are confident in reporting any information, he said.

A matter of life and death

With the steady rise in active shooter events affecting the workplace, preparing for the worst-case scenario and teaching employees survival techniques is crucial, according to workplace safety experts. 

More than 2 million Americans reported that they have experienced some form of workplace violence in 2017, according to research from the AFL-CIO. The union also estimates that injuries and deaths relating to workplace violence cost employers $250 billion to $360 billion annually.

“In today’s society, threats of workplace violence can happen anywhere or at any time,” Mr. Johnson said.

While vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of work-related fatalities, homicides are the second leading cause of death, and an “active shooter probably poses the greatest and most impactful threat for us today,” said Mr. Johnson.

Planning before an attack occurs, being vigilant about planning and acknowledging that a threat exists is crucial, said Mr. Johnson.

“We win by having a practiced, prepared plan in place,” he said. “We don’t need to sit so complacent within our own little surroundings … and think that we’re secure. If you don’t currently have a plan for dealing with (an active shooter) incident … come up with a plan now.”

Employers need to go beyond the Run, Hide and Fight model from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Mr. Pobirsky. “Our brains don’t work that way. Before you can either run or hide or fight, you freeze.”

Workplaces need to develop a clear plan or course of action for survival, Mr. Johnson said, noting that freezing in a situation is “the worst possible action” an individual can take in an active shooter situation.

“You have to have a practiced plan in place, and it will greatly reduce your risk of freezing during one of these kinds of events,” he said. “We fall to the level of our training. If there is not a predetermined plan in place,” it will affect an individual’s ability to think clearly.

Mr. Pobirsky suggests that employers help train their employees to conduct 10 to 15 second assessments that entail considering what they would do if an incident occurred, such as looking for exits, what they could use for cover, and where their car is parked.

“It trains your brain over and over and over again to respond a little bit better,” he said.

Practicing an evacuation and making exit plans available can also help, said Mr. Pobirsky.

Training should also include information on hiding or defending yourself if necessary, such as making sure that employees know to hide behind file cabinets or things that can stop a bullet, stay out of view, turn off lights, barricade doors and silence cellphones, said Mr. Johnson.

Any employer’s best course of action is to hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” he said. “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”







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