A former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) believes the best way to help employers maintain safe workplaces is to issue guidelines rather than move to enforce the law that already exists. He is Edwin G. Foulke, Jr., now a partner in labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips’ Atlanta office.
“It used to be a hot issue,” with OSHA, says Foulke about workplace violence. He was head of the agency during George W. Bush’s second term as president, from April 2006 to November 2008. “Then it cooled off, and now it’'s hot again.”
No doubt the focus is increasingly on such violence because of a string of shootings, some related to work situations if not actually taking place in the workplace, and some unrelated. Here is Foulke’s current advice on the subject:
- Companies should have a zero-tolerance policy about violence. We think that includes disciplining employees for nasty insults (sometimes referred to as objectivizing others) as well as genuine threats. And Foulke believes thorough background checks are crucial to organizations when hiring; a conviction for violence within the previous 5 years will pass muster as a reason not to hire a candidate. Foulke is continuingly surprised at how many companies don’t have a zero-tolerance antiviolence policy in place.
- Organizations should prepare for possible incidents by putting in place possible referrals: If an employee erupts, you should be able to recommend counseling. An employee assistance program is one possible resource, but there are other, less expensive, options available, Foulke stresses, especially for smaller companies. Some churches and other state and county resources can provide free or low-cost interventions.
- Get in touch with local law enforcement teams to ensure you can call on them if and when you need help. They should be familiar with your organization, including its operations, size, and location, and should be able to provide you with particular contacts in case of a problem.
- Train all managers in your organization’s crisis management plan and in conflict resolution. Even if no one becomes angry or violent, conflict resolution is a useful skill for all supervisors to have in their day-to-day duties.
- Teach supervisors to recognize the warning signs of violence, put situations on temporary hold, and call in expert help from the resources with whom you’ve contracted.
Foulke is passionate about safety. “I want to ensure that every employee goes home safe and sound from work every night; that’s what should be the goal for all of us,” he explains. Furthermore, he counsels, employers must focus on safety and violence prevention. Because if you ignore it, he warns, a single incident of violence could not only cost your company big bucks and your reputation, but forever drive up your workers’ compensation premiums.