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Every Business’ Nightmare – Violence in the Workplace
January 29, 2016
In August 1986, a 44-year old part-time letter carrier from Edmond, Oklahoma was reprimanded after a heated argument with two supervisors. At approximately 7 AM the following morning, the mail carrier, Patrick Henry Sherrill, showed up at the post office in his uniform. He sealed off the exits and spent the next 15 minutes gunning down any employee who crossed his path. When the police arrived, he turned the gun on himself. He had murdered 14 coworkers and wounded six others.
This was not the first set of killings at a US post office. The US Postal Service had a series of workplace shootings in the 1980s which consequently introduced the phrase “going postal” to the American vernacular. The incident in Oklahoma was the most deadly in this series of postal incidents, however, and brought a whole new awareness level in the American workplace of another new phrase -- “workplace violence.”
Now, some 30 years since the Edmond post office incident, workplace violence has the distinction of being the second leading cause of worksite deaths in the US. Every week nearly 20 workers are murdered at their place of work, according to the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety.
We’ve seen our share in recent history. The on-air shooting homicide of two journalists in Virginia in August 2015. And of course, the December 2015 shooting at a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and holiday party, killing 14 and injuring 22.
Contrary to what mass shooting events like San Bernardino may lead us to believe, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says multiple homicides represent a very small number of workplace violence incidents. The majority of the incidents that employees and managers have to deal with on a daily basis are lesser cases of assaults, domestic violence, stalking, threats, harassment (including sexual) and physical and/or emotional abuse. And, many of these are not even reported to management. These incidents rarely make headlines.
Prior to the Edmond shootings, the few research and preventative efforts that existed were focused on particular issues such as patient assaults on healthcare workers and the high robbery and murder risks facing taxi drivers and late-night convenience store clerks. A government survey in 2005 found that 80% of companies that experienced a violent incident didn’t subsequently change workplace violence policies or programs. In practice, response plans range from highly detailed to nonexistent, say security experts. A lot of employers, especially small and medium-sized businesses, believe “it can’t happen here, not in my company, not with the people I know.” Today, concern and prevention programs extend across all sizes of business and all sizes of industry.
After the USPS suffered its series of workplace violence events, it adopted preventative services, managerial training, policies and processes. In September 1998, the USPS created the office of Workplace Environment Improvement (WEI) which performs violence prevention activities, identifies and measures trends of concern, and implements initiatives to improve the workplace environment.
Of course, others soon started doing the same.
To develop a successful Workplace Violence Prevention Program, the FBI recommends employers take these actions:
- Adapt a written workplace violence policy statement, including policies regulating harassment, drug and alcohol use.
- Do a physical security survey and assessment of the premises including visibility, alarm signals, control of access, and arrangement of work space so employees cannot be trapped in a small enclosure and adequate and clearly marked escape routes.
- Put procedures in place for addressing threats and threatening behavior.
- Designate and train an incident response team.
- Get access to outside resources, such as threat assessment professionals.
- Take the time to train of different management and employee groups.
- Develop crisis response measures.
- Be consistent in enforcing behavioral standards, including effective disciplinary procedures.
In the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack, many businesses have begun re-thinking existing security measures and employee preparedness. Many hospitals, schools, and other organizations have implemented “active shooter” trainings to educate staff about what they can do in the case of a violent attack. Interestingly, employees at the San Bernardino County Environmental Health Services division had been given “active shooter” training in the same conference room where the shooting took place, approximately one year prior to the event. Two survivors said colleagues reacted by trying to do as they were trained – dropping under tables and staying quiet to avoid attracting attention. Doubtlessly this training saved lives that day.
Unfortunately, even when companies prepare, the end result can be tragic and costly. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has estimated the annual cost of workplace violence on employers is approximately $121 billion. These costs can include lost work time and wages, reduced productivity, medical costs and workers’ compensation payments, and security expenses. Additionally, employers may incur the costs of employees medical care, rest and rehabilitation and psychiatric counseling.
Legal liability is also a real threat for organizations. The widow of a San Bernardino shooting victim has filed a $58 million lawsuit against the county. She is seeking loss of wages and $25 million in general damages as well as $10 million for each of her three young children. This is just the beginning of the lawsuits against the city and the county which will run the gamut from loss of life to loss of property. Hundreds of bullets were fired during the shootout that killed the two suspects. One resident says that her pickup truck was “obliterated” when bullets hit the windshield, door and side of the pickup truck. She is seeking $3,000 for gunshot damage to her car.
Another challenge is business interruption. In the San Bernardino episode, for example, the facility where the holiday party was held was shut down for nearly four weeks. And then there is collateral damage, such as reputation to the San Bernardino County Environmental Health Services division, the city and the county.
To address some of these costs, some businesses are turning to insurance coverage. For instance, XL Catlin just introduced a new insurance program – Act of Workplace Violence and Stalking Threat Insurance – aimed at assisting businesses minimize the threat of workplace violence and, in the event that it occurs, helping them recover. The policy is specifically designed for mid-size institutions and businesses, especially those involved in higher education, hospitality, manufacturing and healthcare facilities which are highly susceptible to workplace violence.
While we hate to think about it, the world can be a violent place. Just turn on the news. Violence can occur anywhere. In the workplace. In a hotel. At a school. Out of nowhere and so unexpectedly.
Vigilance plays a key part in preventing workplace violence. Preparedness is vital to surviving it. Given what we’ve all seen happen in the world today, it’s just time for all of us to be as vigilant and prepared as we can be.
The information contained herein is intended for informational purposes only. Insurance coverage in any particular case will depend upon the type of policy in effect, the terms, conditions and exclusions in any such policy, and the facts of each unique situation. No representation is made that any specific insurance coverage would apply in the circumstances outlined herein. Please refer to the individual policy forms for specific coverage details.
XL Catlin is the global brand used by XL Group Ltd’s insurance subsidiaries. In the US, the insurance companies of XL Group Ltd are: Catlin Indemnity Company, Catlin Insurance Company, Inc., Catlin Specialty Insurance Company, Greenwich Insurance Company, Indian Harbor Insurance Company, XL Insurance America, Inc., XL Insurance Company of New York, Inc., and XL Specialty Insurance Company. In Canada, coverages are underwritten by XL Specialty Insurance Company—Canadian Branch. Coverages may also be underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003. Coverages underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003 are placed on behalf of the member of Syndicate #2003 by Catlin Canada Inc. Lloyd’s ratings are independent of XL Catlin. Coverage may not be available in all jurisdictions.
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