Mitigating Client Risks
PEO HR professional: “Hello, this is Peggy. How can I help you today?”
Client: “This is Abe at ABC Co. There’s been a shooting here. We need your help.”
That’s a call no client wants to make or PEO receive, but it is an undeniable reality that businesses face. In 2016, homicides accounted for 10 percent of deaths at work, an increase over the previous year and a number that appears to be on the rise, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 Beyond fatalities, thousands are injured, and millions yearly experience some type of workplace violence, including episodes of bullying and intimidation.
For now, there is no specific Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation about workplace violence other than the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1), which the courts have interpreted as a legal obligation of employers to provide a safe working environment free of conditions that may cause death or serious injury to employees.
However, rising workplace violence has resulted in some states taking the lead on new regulations. In California, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, is looking at adopting a workplace violence prevention standard for general industries to ensure employee safety and hold employers liable for preventable violence incidents. It is expected that Cal/OSHA this year will propose a regulation that requires general industries to establish, implement, and maintain a written Workplace Violence Prevention Plan (WVPP).
Helping Clients Prepare for the Worst
How can a PEO help its clients prepare for the worst-case scenario and get ahead of possible new regulations? Let’s use the hypothetical ABC Co. as a best practice guide.
Peggy: “I am so sorry to hear this. Is everyone ok? I assume you have already alerted the proper authorities.”
Abe: “We were fortunate and no one was seriously injured. The police and emergency crews have left. We have been following our safety plan procedures.”
PEO Best Practice Tip 1: Assist Client with a Workplace Violence Safety Plan
A good workplace violence safety plan is essential and evidence that a client is fulfilling its duties under OSHA’s General Duty Clause. Depending on your client’s size and industry, the plan may be basic or more formalized. All such plans need five essential elements: a crisis management team; an antiviolence policy; trained managers; third-party compliance; and active violence protocols.2
The ABC Co. safety plan included specific steps to take in this type of emergency. For instance, when an armed man approached the building, the person at the front desk pushed a button that automatically locked the front doors and sounded an alarm. Employees fled in the opposite direction to shelter in place or exit. A manager called 911.
Peggy: “That is a relief. But so scary. Thank you for calling us. We want to partner with you through this crisis. Where are your employees?”
Abe: “I let everyone go home for the day. They are shaken, but were amazing. We followed the training you guys did for us. The guy shot up the door but no one got hurt.”
PEO Best Practice Tip 2: Provide Clients Training on Workplace Violence Safety
Once a client has a workplace violence safety plan, its PEO partner should make sure employees and managers are adequately trained to implement it. Some PEOs have HR professionals or client managers who can do this training, but others may have to provide a third-party vendor. Here, Abe mentions that the training helped his employees avoid serious injury.
Peggy: “So happy to hear that. Can we help you with onsite counseling through the employee assistance program (EAP)?”
Abe: “That would be appreciated. I’m handling so many other details.”
PEO Best Practice Tip 3: Set up Post-Incident Counseling for Clients
Even in a scenario where serious injury was averted, such as presented here, post-incident counseling is an important part of a safety plan. Many clients with benefits through PEOs have access to an EAP. Providers through the EAP can offer counseling and other services affected employees may need. If a client doesn’t participate in the PEO’s EAP, the PEO can suggest other vendors offering post-incident counseling. Such assistance frees up management to tend to other matters, which might include fielding press inquiries and dealing with law enforcement.
Peggy: “I understand. Can you provide some more details about the incident now or as soon as you feel up to it? I want to make sure your handbook and other policies on weapons and violence in the workplace are complete.”
Abe: “It was a domestic issue. One of our workers had a restraining order issued on an abusive spouse. We had no idea.”
PEO Best Practice Tip 4: Keep Client Handbooks and Policies Current
Most handbooks speak to the issue of weapons and violence at work, but special attention should be paid to these provisions given the increase of workplace violence. Not only should there be specific prohibitions with disciplinary measures set forth, but policies on bullying, threatening, and intimidation are needed. Often such activity is the precursor to full-blown violent acts, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).3
In the hypothetical incident above, Abe mentions the matter was domestic and the perpetrator had followed the victim to work. Clients should be encouraged to have a policy that employees disclose restraining (or protective) orders and that a picture be provided to office personnel/security of the restrained person. It is difficult to stop a threat that is unknown.
According to the DOL, the industries with the greatest number of workplace violence episodes are: government, education and health services, professional and business services, and retail.4 While it seems these incidents are often tied to disgruntled employees, in fact most of death and injury is from robberies and assaults. In education, employees face student assault, while healthcare workers are attacked mostly by elderly patients with dementia, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health.5
Because PEOs service a wide variety of clients, the best practices above should be tailored to specific needs. For example, for clients with retail locations, an emphasis on security measures such as alarms and panic buttons may be more appropriate than for clients in manufacturing. Clients that provide educational services may need to focus more on recognizing behavioral cues that could lead to violence.
Once plans and policies are customized to the client, the PEO can deliver them in a variety of ways. If there are several clients across one industry, a common safety plan and policies can be shared. Training programs should be developed and delivered either in person or by video conferencing.
If enough clients are centrally located, a seminar to review the subject matter and train managers might be a good idea. Not only would there be some economy of scale in such an offering, but business owners can network and discuss ideas about workplace safety.
While employee safety is the ultimate responsibility of the onsite employer, PEOs can play an important part in helping clients in this area, which reduces risk of harm and legal liability. By partnering with clients on this important matter, safer work environments can result.
Kim Freeman, Esq. is director of HR services for Resourcing Edge, Inc., based in Rockwall, Texas.
This article is designed to give general and timely information about the subjects covered. It is not intended as legal advice or assistance with individual problems. Readers should consult competent counsel of their own choosing about how the matters relate to their own affairs.
2 “Five Essential Elements of Your Workplace Violence Plan,” Dr. Dennis Davis, Ph.D. and Brian L. McDermott, Esq., PEO Insider, October 2016. www.napeo.org/peo-resources/publications-products/peo-insider/issue/october-2016/department/five-essential-elements-of-your-workplace-violence-plan.