The Return to the Office: How Do We Prevent Workplace Violence?

Debra Kirby, J.D., M.A.

The Las Vegas mass shooting is a stark reminder that workplaces also need to consider how to prevent gun violence.

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It's been four years since the Las Vegas Shooting which resulted in 59 people killed and more than 500 hurt. It is one of the largest mass shootings in US history. Even as we ease our way out of the pandemic, 2021 is shaping to be the worst year in decades for gun violence. Whether a mass shooting occurs in a public venue, as in Las Vegas or a corporate office, the impact is the same — terror and panic. The difference when a mass shooting occurs in the workplace is that employees expect to be safe where they work.

However, safety in the workplace is increasingly a challenge. Since 2017, there have been 22 mass shootings in the workplace. Even as we move through the lingering effect of the pandemic violence has not stopped at our schools or workplaces. We have seen 14 school shootings since March 2021 — the highest total over that period during any year since at least 1999. This year, through May, 46 people were shot, 39 fatally, resulting from five separate workplace violence mass shootings.

While these tragic incidents often do not provide warning or insight to the victims and those of us who study such events, we can prepare to improve our reactions and the ability to survive a mass shooting. Industry best practice calls for a focus on prevention in conjunction with incident response planning and training.

Preventing Workplace Violence

We know that workplace violence prevention is the best option for enhanced workplace safety. As employers and their employees begin to return to work following the pandemic, safety must be more broadly defined to address both health safety and safety from violence. The long-term stress COVID has created through isolation, job insecurity and fear of illness can increase aggression in the workplace. Employers now have an opportunity to minimize workplace violence by ensuring the implementation of a robust workplace violence prevention program — one that seeks to prevent a violent act through intervention — as part of their return to work protocols.

Providing a safe working environment, as is currently the focus under COVID protocols, will protect employees, customers and business performance. So, what tools do employers have available to them to enhance security and safety?

Physical Security

As people return to work, employers need to first focus on the prevention measures in place. Is there a planned, layered approach to physical security designed to mitigate access to the workplace by an active assailant? Do you address physical security to include security and safety through access controls? Do you have enhanced controls, remote door activation, silent alarms and other notification systems in the event of an active shooter? These types of physical controls are the foundation for workplace safety.

Policy

Employers should use this point in time to establish or reaffirm workplace protocols focused on intervention and support. Mandate reporting of concerning behaviors. Ensure protocols exist for reporting and management action to address concerning behaviors. Establish policies that are security-focused for the termination of employees. Affix responsibility for managing access controls with routine audits to ensure they are current and up to date.

Employers should also review their critical incident protocols. Have they been tested to reflect the reality of the new working environment? Are your policies sufficiently descriptive to address behavioral issues in the workplace with specific actions required in response? Have you tested your plans with your emergency response partners, both private and public? Do your first responders know your access points and key security contacts? These actions help improve the overall safety of your workforce and clients.

Training

Training provides muscle memory and ingrains the practices that will keep employees vigilant for potential issues. Provide managers with the training and tools to engage with problem employees, including HR support for intervention. HR should ensure employees are informed and trained on the availability of resource support, expected behavioral guidelines, and your company's reporting protocols. Ensure your staff knows the warning signs of the pathway to violence.

Active Assailant Training

Invest in training to help your employees know, understand and practice the safety protocols for active assailant response — Run, Hide, Fight. Awareness helps keep them safe at work and in the public domain as mass shootings, like that in Las Vegas, continue to occur in shopping areas, entertainment venues, schools and places of worship.

Most active assailants want to kill or injure as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. Two things are needed for an assailant to achieve this goal — time and access — with data showing that casualties generally occur within the first two minutes of the attack.

Safety in these situations rests with the actions of your employees and managers and they must plan and rehearse in advance of facing such an incident. Simple steps, like knowing how a gunshot sounds, being aware of the nearest exits, being prepared to leave immediately (no grabbing your purse, phone or computer) and maintaining as calm a demeanor as possible, has saved lives. These actions were reinforced by training and can be applied in a highly charged and frightening situation.

As we return to work, employers have the opportunity to improve overall work safety practices. Strong physical security controls and policies and procedures centered on an employee-centric management system that helps identify behaviors and provide deterrence to violence are a strong foundation for safe work practices. An effective program includes clear, actionable guidance on areas ranging from core operational policies, security and HR practices, compliance, privacy, reporting and incident tracking to forming a threat assessment team to ensure visibility on all program components.

This is a great time and opportunity for employees to drive holistic safety practices for both health and violence prevention.

Headshot of Debra K. Kirby

About the author

Debra K. Kirby
Debra Kirby serves as the Operations Leader, Midwest for Jensen Hughes.
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