Employers take steps to prevent workplace violence

July 21

A former employee at a Baltimore County automotive repair shop lurked nearby in the days after his firing last year, watching the comings and goings from across the street. Employees feared that he was plotting revenge.

What the ex-employee didn’t know was that he, too, was being watched.

Philip Deming, a consultant in workplace violence prevention, had set up a “counter surveillance” operation. Deming had been called by the small company’s president to intervene after spotting the man outside and being told by employees that he had been out there for days.

The disgruntled employee apparently made threats against the company and was eventually arrested on weapons charges, preventing what could have been an explosive situation in the workplace, according to Deming, who declined to identify the company, citing client confidentiality.

Workplace violence prevention efforts and policies have become more commonplace, much as sexual harassment training has become an integral part of doing business. More employers, including many prominent businesses in Maryland, are taking steps to thwart a range of threatening acts — such as harassment, bullying, stalking and physical assaults — by hiring consultants like Deming and implementing protocols.

That greater awareness and intervention may have contributed to a decline in the mass shootings that captured headlines in the late 1980s and early 1990s, workplace experts believe. Homicides in workplaces have fallen 52 percent to 526 in 2008 since reaching a high of 1,080 in 1994, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics released in April.

Still, about 2 million U.S. workers each year are victims of some kind of workplace assault, according to frequently cited statistics from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports. And most workplaces in the U.S. — 70 percent — do not have either a formal program or policy in place to address the problem, a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health found.

“Workplace violence is something a lot of employers don’t like to talk about, because of the ‘It can’t happen here’ mentality,” Deming said. “People don’t want to believe it can happen, and if someone does act out, it is viewed as a personal problem that should be handled outside the workplace.”
When violence erupts at work, it can be deadly. Last October, 54-year-old Dennis Leon McLaughlin walked into direct-mail company Keary Advertising Co. in eastern Baltimore County and opened fire, killing company owner Wayne Lee Keary. As employees ran screaming through a side door, McLaughlin left by a main entrance and shot himself. He later died. Police pegged his motive to a dispute involving his estranged wife, an employee.

Similar incidents have been reported across the country. Earlier this month, the former boyfriend of a worker at Emcore solar and fiber optics company in Albuquerque, N.M., killed six people, including himself, and wounded four others in a rampage officials believe stemmed from a custody dispute.

In March, a supermarket meat cutter at a Publix in Tarpon Springs, Fla., was shot and killed in his car outside the store by a co-worker who police said had been fired after threatening the meat cutter, who reportedly taunted her at work. And in January, at a truck rental company in Kennesaw, Ga., a disgruntled former employee shot four employees and one customer, killing three people.

Violence prevention programs and policies encourage employees to spot disruptive behavior and recognize signs of domestic disputes that could follow an employee to work. Sometimes they incorporate training in how to respond to an on-site shooter.

Baltimore-based companies such as McCormick & Co, Constellation Energy Group and Legg Mason Inc. all either offer training or have implemented guidelines designed to thwart workplace violence.

Consultants say they’re seeing upticks in attendance at prevention seminars and more requests for training. They say companies have become more sensitive to at-risk employees and more likely in recent years to offer help to keep problems from escalating. Yet employers are still far too likely to focus on workplace violence when it might be too late, after an incident occurs, they say.

Too often, while security or human resources managers might be on the lookout for potential triggers of workplace violence, such as employer reprimands and terminations or financial difficulties and family problems, rank-and-file co-workers might not be trained to look for those warning signs.
It wasn’t until the early to mid-1990s that larger and more progressive firms started to address workplace violence, said Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, a consulting firm. Even now, he said many companies might have a written policy but fewer undertake training and risk assessment.

Nonetheless, Nixon said, he has seen increased demand for workplace violence prevention training, which he offers to private industry and government agencies.

“We’re reaching more and more employers who understand they need to get ahead of the curve, as opposed to being reactionary when something happens,” he said.

Security firm Allied Barton and ASIS International, a professional association representing security officers, have been offering seminars in the Baltimore- Washington region that planners hope will boost awareness and correct misperceptions about workplace violence. They held a seminar last month in Owings Mills. Two more are planned later this year in Montgomery County and Western Maryland.

“Developing workplace violence plans and policies is becoming more of a need these days and more of a priority, and companies are starting to focus on it,” said Stephen Somers, vice president of operations for AlliedBarton and chair of the Baltimore chapter of ASIS. “It’s getting more attention, and there have been more high-profile incidents.”

The seminars have sparked additional requests for on-site training at such workplaces as government agencies, property management firms and hospitals in the Baltimore-Washington area, he said.

During the seminars, instructors discuss myths and the gamut of workplace violence from behaviors that trigger concern to those that result in physical harm. Attacks can come from employees, customers, relatives of employees or someone with no connection to the workplace. Almost always, they’re preceded by warning signs.

One of the biggest myths is that someone walks into a workplace and just snaps, said Paul Danek, a regional training director for Allied Barton.

“That’s not normally the case. It has been building up,” Danek told more than 100 people attending a seminar last month. “If you see something that isn’t right, you’ve got to react. The biggest problem we have is people don’t take action, even if to report something to a supervisor.”
At McCormick & Co., the Sparks-based spice maker, all employees receive training in workplace violence prevention, in which they are encouraged to report various levels of threats, said Bill Ramsey, director of corporate security. The company’s policy covers three levels of threat severity and lays out steps for each scenario.

“People have to understand what the lines are, what constitutes a threat and what can happen as a result of committing these acts,” he said. “We take every threat seriously, no matter how slight, seriously enough to investigate.”

Ramsey said domestic disputes trigger about half of the threats the company has investigated. The company has investigated more than 250 reported threats since the policy took effect in 1996, Ramsey said. Responses have included verbally defusing a situation, clearing an area or calling police.

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