Construction is a high-pressure industry. On occasion, this pressure causes confrontation, which can lead to verbal threats, shouting, cursing, fights, flared tempers and violent acts. When we think of violence in the workplace, the first thing that comes to mind is a disgruntled postal worker entering the office with a gun and shooting his boss.
While workplace murders grab media attention, they are only part of the problem. For each murder, there are countless other incidents of workplace violence in which victims are harassed, threatened or injured.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “Workplace Violence is any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the workplace setting.” It includes, but is not limited to, physical violence, intimidation, rape, harassment, profanity or psychological trauma such as threats, threatening or obscene phone calls, an intimidating presence, being followed or shouted at and any other disruptive or potentially dangerous behavior.
Although the construction industry is not one of the industry sectors most frequently affected by violence in the workplace, there are far more incidents than you may think because a lot of incidents go unreported. Workplace violence in any form is a serious health and safety issue that construction owners and safety directors should be prepared to deal with.
There are several categories of workplace violence of which employers should be aware. They include:
Violence by a stranger where the stranger has no legitimate relationship to the worker or workplace. For example, a home or business owner may become irate or threatening because the street, yard or sidewalk in front of his home or establishment is torn up to install new utilities.
Violence by customers/clients where someone who receives a service provided by the business is not satisfied or is disturbed by the business or its employees.
Violence by a co-worker where the perpetrator has an employment relationship with the business. The perpetrator can be a current, former or prospective employee. Co-worker violence that occurs outside the workplace, but results or arises from the employment relationship is included. For example, two workers get in a fight during or after work hours following an argument that occurred at work.
Violence by personal relationship where the violence is committed by someone who has a personal relationship with the worker. For example, a relative or friend of the worker enters the workplace and confronts the worker in a violent manner.
Another area of great concern is that of harassment in its many forms, which does not always result in physical violence. Workplace harassment is defined by Wikipedia as belittling or threatening behavior directed at an individual worker or a group of workers. Harassment includes, but is not limited to, intimidation, bullying and sexual harassment.
The construction industry has historically consisted of male-dominated workplaces, but times are changing and women are now often part of construction crews. The problem is that some males find it difficult to accept the fact that a woman can do the work of a man and do it well. So instead of just accepting that a woman can do the job, some workers make comments, gestures and references to gender that most women would find offensive. Others may threaten physical harm, sabotage work or create dangerous situations.
One situation I heard about involved a worker shaking a ladder on which a woman was climbing while shouting, “Are you afraid?” This could have caused her to fall and be injured or even killed. What many workers do not know is that these actions are considered harassment and fall under NIOSH’s definition of workplace violence.
There is no specific OSHA regulation that applies to violence in the workplace. However, under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” OSHA has interpreted this to mean that an employer who has identified or experienced acts of violence or becomes aware of threats or intimidation or other potential indicators of workplace violence has an obligation to implement a workplace violence prevention program.
Acts of violence in the workplace may be covered by workers’ compensation if an injury or illness occurs. However, injuries caused by intentional acts may not be covered. Other insurance coverage may provide employers with additional protection. Therefore, employers should check with their insurance carriers to determine if they have insurance protection to cover acts of violence.
Employers also have a legal and moral obligation to provide their workers with a safe place to work. To prevent loss of life and injuries and limit potential liabilities, employers should take adequate steps to prevent workplace violence by creating and implementing policies and procedures to prevent violence.
Employers can be held liable in many ways. For example, a victim can sue because the employer hired another employee without a proper background check or because the employer did not terminate a perpetrator who demonstrated violent tendencies. Family members of victims and third parties who suffer due to workplace violence have also won significant awards against businesses due to inaction or negligence on the part of employer or their representatives.
What to Look For
Construction managers and foremen/supervisors need to be trained to identify and be on the lookout for potentially violent situations. Simple situations such as a foreman shouting at a worker because the worker made a mistake or a worker getting in the face of another because of a disagreement can lead to a violent eruption. Like it or not, it is management’s responsibility to deal with situations like this; they need to be dealt with and the threat needs to be removed immediately before escalating into a real problem.
Perpetrators of workplace violations often exhibit a pattern of behavioral characteristics that indicate a tendency for violence. Such characteristics may include:
- Anti-social tendencies;
- Inability to get along with others;
- Patterns of verbal harassment or abusive behavior toward others;
- Sense of moral superiority or righteousness;
- Frequent displays of temper or anger;
- Inability to accept responsibility for mistakes;
- Tendency to feel wronged or humiliated;
- Tendency to hold grudges or blame others;
- Fascination with guns and weapons; and Habitually resisting or challenging authority.
Depending on what is going on in his life, a nice guy can turn into a raging bear. Things like this can happen overnight for a variety of reasons: a person may be getting a divorce, the bill collectors may be tracking him down or he may have wrecked his car and is without insurance, to name just a few possibilities. Sometimes it does not take very much to light the fuse when someone is dealing with difficulties in their personal life. In many situations, all the worker needs is someone to talk to or vent. If the person appears to need help, he should be referred to human resources personnel who can guide him to a professional for help or to the employee assistance program if the company has one.
Workplace Violence Prevention Program
Employers should establish and implement a written workplace violence prevention program. The program should include a clearly written violence policy statement and establish:
- A threat assessment team;
- A plan for assessing potential situations;
- Procedures for preventing and controlling incidents;
- Incident reporting, investigation, follow-up and evaluation procedures;
- Training and education programs for management and employees; and Recordkeeping.
Many violent situations can be prevented when employees have been properly trained and understand what constitutes an act of violence in the workplace and what they are expected to do when they are involved with or witness workplace violence or harassment. They should understand that cursing out or menacing another employee (e.g., threatening to give him a fat lip, etc.) will be considered a violent act. Clearly explain the different types of workplace violence that could occur and how they should respond to fellow employees or the general public.
Managers and employees must realize that they should treat each other and the general public as they would expect to be treated. Put simply, being polite, avoiding profanity or not using the “one finger solute” may be all it takes to prevent an incident. Disagreements can be worked out without getting violent or nasty. Educate all managers and employees and make sure they understand that violence in the workplace results in 500-plus worker deaths and thousands of serious injuries each year, and is thus a genuine threat to their well-being.
As with other safety and health policies, managers and foremen/supervisors should know what constitutes workplace violence and the confidential reporting procedure for those who feel threatened. Without delay, every report should be systematically investigated by the assessment team and appropriate action should be taken immediately when justified. All managers and workers should understand that intimidation, threats, verbal abuse, harassment, profanity and other violent behavior in the workplace will not be tolerated and is cause for termination.
There is no guarantee that workplace violence will not occur, but when it does, it needs to be stopped before it has a chance to escalate to more dangerous levels. Employers can prevent and limit possible violent acts by creating policies and procedures and by educating all employees before an incident occurs.
George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.