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Creating safer workplaces by mitigating workplace violence risks

Implementing a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan.

Most employers in California will need to adopt comprehensive workplace violence prevention plans by July 1, 2024, under new legislation intended to reduce a growing and persistent concern that impacts around two million American workers every year.

While Senate Bill 553 is restricted to California, the Golden State is known as a trailblazer for protecting workers, and similar legislation may be enacted in other states. In the interim, employers across the country are legally obliged to provide a place of business that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees,” as outlined in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

And considering the widespread implications of workplace violence — which can threaten the safety of employees, customers, and other individuals — it is prudent for all organizations, including those with no presence in California, to take action to minimize their risks. 

What is workplace violence?

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.”

These incidents may include physical violence, for example, kicking, spitting, hitting, and pushing, as well as assaults with a weapon and also verbal attacks, including shouting, swearing, insults, racial or sexual abuse, threats, and intimidation. These incidents can have fatal consequences; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 500 of the fatal workplace injuries in 2022 were homicides. While this data is restricted to employees, workplace violence can also involve and impact clients, customers, and other visitors to the workplace.

It is also important to note that certain incidents — such as an active assailant event — may have more widespread consequences, underscoring the need for all organizations to take appropriate actions to reduce the possibility of workplace violence and respond immediately.

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How will California’s Senate Bill 553 impact employers?

California’s new law, which adds a section to the California Labor Code, requires most employers, with few exceptions, to implement basic protections to safeguard employees at work.

The bill, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in September 2023, requires those employers covered by it to implement a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan. These employers will need to:

Employers covered by the bill will be required to establish, implement, and maintain an effective workplace violence prevention plan. The written plan should be available to all employees and include the names or job titles of those responsible for implementing it. Other critical components include how the employer will receive and respond to reports of workplace violence, how they will communicate with employees, emergency response procedures, and assessments of workplace violence hazards.

The bill requires employers to maintain a log of all incidents of workplace violence, whether or not it resulted in injury, including employee statements, witness statements, and investigation findings. The log must exclude personal identifying information that would identify any person involved in a violent incident. Further, in cases where an incident involves an employee of a third-party, such as a consultant or contractor, the organization responsible for the premises where the incident occurred should be ready to share the violent incident log with the controlling employer.

Underscoring the importance of training for the plan to be effective, the new bill requires organizations to incorporate annual training for all current employees. New hires will receive similar training during the onboarding process. The bill states that employers must provide easy-to-understand materials that align with employers’ education, reading skills, and language.

The bill requires employers to establish records for workplace violence hazard identification, evaluation, and correction, which should be maintained for a minimum of five years. Employers are also required to maintain violent incident logs and workplace violence incident investigations for a minimum of five years. Records of training should also be created and maintained for one year. Records of workplace violence hazard identification, evaluation, and correction, as well as training records and violent incident logs, must be made available to employees upon request, at no cost, for examination and copying within 15 calendar days of a request.

While employers are mandated to implement their plans by July 1, 2024, it is important to note that California’s Occupational Safety and Health Authority is expected to develop a workplace violence prevention standard that meets the requirements outlined by SB 553 by December 1, 2025. The proposed changes will need to be granted final approval by December 31, 2026.

Protecting your workforce

Whether you have operations in California and need to abide by SB 553 or are based elsewhere, workplace violence can be a significant challenge. The potential impacts of workplace violence, whether on your people or assets as well as legal, financial, or reputational consequences, have led to increased efforts by organizations to make their workplaces safer.

Although they occur at the place of work, workplace violence incidents are not always committed by employees. In fact, according to the Department of Labor, a high percentage of violent incidents are perpetrated by non-employees. Because threats can come from both internal and external sources, organizations should take a multipronged approach — in line with numerous requirements and leading practices — to minimize risks, including:

  • Involve employees in the development and implementation of the workplace violence plan. employees to provide feedback about your workplace violence plan, training, and corrective measures. Hold site-safety meetings with employees to discuss workplace violence-related concerns/hazards, evaluate those concerns/hazards, and determine actions that will be taken to correct them.     
  • Implement a violence prevention and response policy. It is critical for organizations to establish an anti-violence culture. This policy should cover not just employees, but be extended to patrons, contractors, and all external individuals who come into contact with your people. Share information about your policy with employees, including in your employee handbook or manual. Your policy should explicitly ban bullying, especially since persistent bullying or other emotional abuse can lead to employee violence.·
  • Educate your people. Provide employees with information to help them prepare for and reduce the risk of workplace violence. Training should include basic facts about workplace violence, the specific terms of your organization’s workplace violence prevention policy and related policies, as well as their rights and obligations, including reporting responsibilities. Consider providing additional training on threat management and implementation of security measures to senior management.    
  • Establish reporting procedures. It is also important to establish procedures for employees to report violent or troubling behavior, which is a requirement of SB 553. Further, set criteria for escalating incidents to a pre-defined threat assessment or management team. Put in place structures to report, investigate, and assess the severity of each threat and prepare a detailed response plan to monitor and respond where necessary. It’s important to have a non-retaliation policy for employees who report workplace violence threats. It is also prudent to develop a structured procedure for reporting and analyzing workplace violence threats or incidents and use the data to identify potential threat trends that should be addressed.
  • Assess threats. The OSHA recommends that employers establish and assemble a team to manage workplace conflicts. This team should consist of frontline supervisor(s), employee representatives, and/or executives/ senior management from the human resources, legal, security, and risk management departments, as well as outside counsel, a mental health clinician, employee assistance program (EAP) executives, local law enforcement, or other appropriate individuals.
  • Take a cautious approach to hiring. Set up a well-designed hiring system and strategy that includes thorough background checks on prospective employees, that also complies with employee privacy protection laws. It’s important to consult with legal counsel to make sure that hiring practices are compliant with applicable laws.
  • Consider your dismissal procedures. When terminating an employee for any reason, place increased emphasis on respecting an individual’s dignity and help them cope with the disappointment. If the situation escalates, notify law enforcement and site security and consider increasing site security measures.
  • Secure the workplace. Establish and document an effective workplace security strategy. Bring together a multidisciplinary team — including external resources — to help you identify and counter possible threats.
  • Protect off-premises employees. If you have people working in the field, consider developing specific policies and procedures to help keep them safe.
  • Conduct tabletop exercises. Many adult learners benefit from a practical and interactive learning approach that simulates real-world events. A tabletop exercise should briefly review existing plans, procedures, and processes. Participants, guided by a facilitator, can then walk through hypothetical scenarios and determine what actions they would take both while an event is taking place or immediately after and in the hours, days, or weeks afterwards.

Workplace violence affects millions of workers each year. Whether operating in California and SB 553 applies to your organization or elsewhere, it is prudent to take proactive measures to minimize the risks of workplace violence for employees, clients, and other visitors. By promoting a culture that prioritizes safety, offering education and training, and by promptly addressing threats, among other proactive measures, organizations can cultivate an environment that prioritizes the wellbeing of employees and reduces the potential of violence in the workplace.

Taking a multipronged approach to minimizing risks

If you would like a Marsh’s Advisory enterprise risk management specialist to help your organization evaluate or implement your workplace violence training program, please contact us or reach out to your Marsh representative directly.

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