Employers must be mindful of the legal issues surrounding violence in the workplace or risk significant legal liability.
Workplace violence is a broad term that includes bullying, harassment physical assault and even sexual harassment. Employers are much more aware than ever of the need to develop clear policies that explain what to do in the event of disruptive conduct that is dangerous or unlawful. Employers must clearly communicate to all employees that unwelcome harassing or other dangerous conduct will not be tolerated. It is very important to establish a grievance process that allows employees to file formal complaints. Any incidents that are reported need to be followed up immediately with action. Proper guidance and anti-workplace violence training must also be provided to all employees. Training is the most important tool for reducing the number of workplace safety incidents. An anti-workplace violence training program must explore the real-life type scenarios that are potentially dangerous in the industry and set up systems to avoid such dangerous incidents. Providing a safe and healthy work environment also means providing a workplace that is free from bullying or sexual harassment via a ‘zero tolerance’ policy that punishes unlawful behavior.
Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)
A hostile work environment claim is not limited to mere claims of sexual harassment or discrimination but also may be an Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) violation. A complaint of a hostile work environment could very easily cause an OSHA investigation and enforcement that could potentially lead to significant sanctions and penalties depending upon the specific facts of the case. The safety regulations promulgated per the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 have been embraced by all 50 states to varying degrees. It should be noted that any business with 10 or less employees are typically not subject to OSHA safety reporting guidelines and OSHA mandated inspections. The cost of an OSHA penalty or fine plus a lawsuit could be substantial to an employer. Damages could include back pay, wages, interest, compensatory and punitive damages, as well as front pay. Hostile work environment cases, especially in the construction and industrial industry are prolific and demonstrate the importance of good management practices, along with the growing importance of training supervisors and managers about worker safety.
A larger percentage of worker safety issues surround issues of bullying and sexual harassment but certainly there are physical assault incidents between co-workers or even strangers. Companies need to make sure their employees don’t get into a potentially dangerous situation in an enclosed, private space, with a stranger. Companies are liable for any unsafe working conditions that are foreseeable and could have been prevented. OSHA regulations, as well as liability under the common law, make an employer potentially liable for failing to prevent a foreseeable dangerous and unsafe working condition that causes actual harm. Legally, there is a reasonable duty to protect an employee from dangerous conditions. Preventative security measures could include video cameras, security guards to check the premises on a regular basis, and any other reasonable precautions that an employer in similar circumstances would conduct to ensure the safety of its workers.
Women in The Workplace
Women might be affected by workplace safety issues more so than men because women have historically been erroneously perceived as ‘weaker’ than men. It is important to understand gender differences in workplace safety by recognizing gender differences and not putting women into harmful situations where a woman is more likely to be a victim of workplace violence. The establishment of worker safety training programs to report any dangerous or unsafe working conditions is essential to reduce claims of worker violence. Many incidents occur when a person, oftentimes a lone woman, is isolated and left in an enclosed private space. The establishment of a ‘buddy system’ is an effective way to minimize this risk. Employers must clearly communicate to all employees that unwelcome harassing or other dangerous conduct towards women will not be tolerated.
Employers must be mindful of the legal issues surrounding violence in the workplace or risk significant legal liability. Workplace violence could include demeaning an employee, making abusive comments and unsafe work conditions due to not taking threats of unsafe working conditions seriously. The law is very clear that employers have a responsibility to the safety of their employees. Furthermore, the negative publicity for an organization that does not take workplace violence seriously is extremely detrimental to a company’s reputation in an age of shared social media where company bad behavior can go viral and be shared all over the world in a nanosecond. Employees increasingly expect and demand that a company exercises a duty of care to protect against foreseeable harm from workplace violence.