Workplace violence is an ever-growing concern for employers and their employees in the United States. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), almost two million Americans are victims of occupational violence every year, and that’s only the cases that are officially reported.
OSHA defines workplace violence as any “act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” This can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide, which is currently one of the top causes of fatal occupational injuries in the United States.
Occupational violence is covered under most workers’ compensation insurance policies, providing coverage for employees that suffer physical injuries and/or mental distress. There are some exceptions to the rule, especially if incidents of workplace violence involve horseplay or some form of personal grievance between employees. Those situations are often subject to investigation and may not be covered under workers’ compensation.
While most cases of occupational violence are isolated incidents of verbal abuse or physical assault, there has been an increase in recent months of more extreme events involving active shooters. On March 22, 2021, 10 people were killed in a mass shooting event at King Sooper supermarket in Boulder Colorado, and less than a month later, on April 15, a mass shooting occurred at a FedEx Ground facility in Indianapolis, where nine people were killed.
Active shooter risk is something that workers’ compensation insurers always consider when underwriting workplace violence, said Matt Zender (pictured), senior vice president, workers’ compensation strategy at AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. He told Insurance Business: “Traditionally, underwriters think about the risk in terms of employee concentrations, and ingress and egress of a location in the event of an emergency. This doesn’t just relate to workplace violence; it’s important for all catastrophic events, and it’s something that employers must consider when taking steps to minimize risks in the workplace.”
In most workplaces, the risk of occupational violence can be minimized if employers take appropriate precautions, according to Jeff Corder, vice president of loss control at AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. One of the best protections employers can offer their workers is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence, which should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.
Employers should also make plans and give employees training on what to do in situations of workplace violence. As an example, employers should have a way to notify staff if there’s a situation that could potentially lead to a large event, which could be as simple as making noise and yelling, or a more sophisticated announcement to all staff that might be a code for: ‘This is an emergency. Drop what you’re doing and leave the facility immediately.’
“What we’re thinking about now from a loss control perspective are the additional stressors that have come into play as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Corder. “As employers bring employees back to work in offices, after maybe a year of remote working, there will likely be some emotional and mental baggage coming along with that. Employers will need to have some very open and honest conversations around what’s causing any additional stressors and take action to mitigate them wherever possible.”
Tension could arise from multiple issues related to the pandemic, including sanitation practices, social distancing, vaccination, and heightened workplace stress in pandemic-exposed industries like healthcare, hospitality, and retail. At the same time, employees are returning to work after a year of social unrest and political change in the United States, all of which could create “a pressure cooker” situation that could result in workplace violence, Corder explained.
“There’s a risk of workplace violence in all industries,” said Zender. “Oftentimes, the individuals concerned have been part of a disciplinary action or a layoff, so they’re upset about their personal situation and they resort to violence. Therefore, industries or jobs with higher rates of employee turnover might be more susceptible to incidents of workplace violence, especially in the context of the pandemic where there have been mass layoffs across multiple industries.”
The overall stress level of the workplace can also increase the risk of occupational violence. OSHA has identified factors that may increase the risk of violence in the workplace, which include exchanging money with the public, providing services and care, working where alcohol is served, and working late at night or in areas with high crime rates.
Regardless of business size or sector, it’s important for employers to remind employees regularly of basic workplace safety standards and best practices. Corder commented: “Employee training is important, and there are a lot of free resources on the internet that employers can turn to. Most workers’ compensation carriers, including AmTrust, have large amounts of information on workplace safety on their websites, and we would be more than happy to help companies prepare themselves and get relevant and timely information out to new employees or employees that are returning to the workplace after a long period of remote working.”