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What can we learn from recent critical workplace violence incidents?

James Holmes, Aurora 2012 Shooting. Image:

Under Canadian Occupational Health and Safety legislation, employers are obligated to take all reasonable steps to maintain a safe work environment. In many Provinces (e.g., Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta) as well as the Federal jurisdiction, employers are statutorily obligated to put in place a workplace violence prevention and intervention program (i.e., measures and procedures designed to mitigate the risk of harm from work-related violence).

Whilst “prevention” of violence in the workplace is clearly a primary objective, recent events across North America have underscored the importance of “critical incident management” as an essential contributor to workplace and worker safety. This month’s column introduces a number of recent examples of critical workplace violence incidents, discusses some of their key characteristics, and offers a number of learning opportunities for employers.

Definition of “workplace violence critical incident”

For the purposes of this column, a workplace violence critical incident is defined as:

a non-routine event or series of events that is sudden, overwhelming or threatening, involving actual, attempted or threatened violence, and causing direct or indirect emotional or psychological distress to workers in a work-related setting

Recent critical workplace violence incidents

On September 21st, 2012, an armed suicidal man travelled to the 16th floor of a downtown Pittsburgh office building, entering an employee benefits firm and taking one person hostage. The building was evacuated and the man eventually surrendered without harming the hostage. On August 24th, 2012, a laid-off employee shot and killed his former manager outside the Empire State Building in New York. Nine bystanders were injured in the attack and the shooter was shot and killed on the scene by Police.

On August 3rd, 2010, a driver caught stealing beer in Manchester, Conn. went on a shooting rampage immediately upon being terminated by the beer distributor, killing eight people before taking his own life. On March 26th, 2012, a receptionist at a medical clinic in southwestern Newfoundland was shot and killed at work by her estranged husband, who then took his own life.

On July 20th, 2012, a troubled former university student shot into an Aurora, CO. movie theatre audience killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Several victims have now filed lawsuits claiming that the theatre owner had inadequate security, including lax critical incident management planning and poor employee training. On June 2nd, 2012, a man shot and killed another man, injuring seven people in a busy food court in one of Canada’s largest shopping malls. Hundreds of retail stores in the mall made a split second decision to either evacuate their store or lockdown and shelter-in-place in the immediate aftermath of the shooting (i.e., while the suspect was still at large).

Other recent critical workplace violence incidents have included armed robberies, “active threats” (i.e., armed individual at or in the area of the workplace), physical assaults, sexual assaults and other offences.

Lessons from recent critical incidents

The examples cited above (as well as a number of other recent incidents) offer a range of learning opportunities for employers interested in developing or optimizing a critical incident management plan. This section draws out six main lessons from recent high profile critical incidents. It is intended to provide some “food for thought” for employers.

1. Critical incidents can occur almost anywhere

Whether it’s the shooting incident outside the Empire State Building in New York or the hostage taking in a downtown Pittsburgh office tower, a key lesson reinforced by recent events is that work-related violence can happen anywhere. For this reason, all workplaces should have in place a basic critical incident response plan with clearly assigned roles and responsibilities. This plan should address the steps required to:

  • mitigate/stabilize any threat to employees in direct contact with an assailant
  • summon immediate assistance from emergency services
  • summon immediate assistance from building security, if applicable
  • immediately communicate emergency instructions to employees within the workplace
  • quickly secure the workplace and shelter-in-place (i.e., lockdown), where applicable
  • quickly evacuate the workplace via the safest route, where applicable

2. Specific job functions and workplace activities may expose workers to a heightened risk of violence

As illustrated in the tragic mass shooting at the beer distribution facility in Connecticut, the termination of an employee is an example of a job activity that has an increased potential for emotional distress, hostility and even lethal violence. When it comes to employee terminations, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) sets out some best practice guidelines in its ‘Violence in the Workplace Prevention Guide’, which include:

  • pre-plan the termination meeting – i.e., who will conduct the interview, how to call security assistance, who will witness the meeting, timing and location of the meeting, how will the departing employee retrieve personal possessions, etc.
  • bring in an experienced outplacement consultant or human resources professional to assist with termination planning and process
  • arrange the meeting room so the employer is closest to the door to enable quick exit if required
  • put security staff on notice
  • allow the employee to save face and maintain self-esteem
  • stick to a script and do not get drawn into long explanations or justification of the decision to terminate

The literature on workplace violence identifies a number of job types that are exposed to an above-average risk of violence (e.g., health care workers, security guards, social workers). Across broad industry sectors, there are also specific job functions that can expose workers to an above-average risk of violence (e.g., handling cash, working with the public, working alone). A good example is the “front desk” position exemplified within many workplaces in roles such as reception desk staff, customer service/information kiosk personnel or cash desk employees. This position is often the “face” of the organization and acts as the first point of contact for a wide range of work issues, including complaints.

Unfortunately, many critical incident management plans do little to distinguish between job roles and functions. Employers should carefully assess each job function and provide role-specific guidance and training that protects workers from the risks inherent in their particular position. In its excellent publication, “Developing Workplace Violence and Harassment Policies and Programs: A Toolbox”, the Occupational Health and Safety Council of Ontario (OHSCO: 2010: 16) reinforces this point by way of the following example:

a debt collection operation may divide its staff into those who deal with customers personally and those who perform administrative support functions with no customer contact. In this way, violence prevention efforts can be focused on those areas where they are most needed.

3. Training of employees is a key component of critical incident response

The Aurora theatre shooting is an example of a critical incident occurring in a mass public gathering area but having a profound impact on the workplace. The workplace in this case was the theatre, where a number of employees were on duty at the time of the incident. A unique challenge faced by employers such as Cinemark, the owner of the Aurora theatre, is ensuring its employees remain fully aware of, and trained in, critical incident response. Most theatre staff are part-time, teenaged employees and the level of staff turnover at many theatres is quite high. Employers in this situation must take additional steps to ensure that all employees (i.e., new, part-time, temporary staff) are fully trained in the actions to be taken in the event of a critical incident.

4. Some workplaces are more exposed to “indirect critical incidents” than others

The mass shooting at The Eaton Centre shopping mall in Toronto earlier this year is another example of a critical incident that was not directed at a workplace or an employee, but nevertheless had significant impact on workers. Aside from having 230 separate workplaces in the form of retail stores within the mall, there are also three high rise office towers, several major department stores, a university campus and two subway stations directly connected to The Eaton Centre, all of which adds up to thousands of employees in workplaces situated in relatively close proximity to each other.

The shopping mall food court may have been the specific location of the shooting, but the threat to the hundreds of surrounding and adjacent workplaces was real and present as the assailant was fleeing the scene trying to avoid responding police in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. The lesson to be learned for employers is that they need to consider indirect threats (i.e., the potential for violent incidents near their workplace) when developing critical incident management plans.

5. There is often confusion on whether to “evacuate” or “lockdown”

In reviewing the response of the various retail businesses in the immediate aftermath of The Eaton Centre shooting it is interesting to note that some stores self-evacuated while others locked down or “sheltered in place” (see related television news segment). In large, multi-tenanted buildings it is often the case that the landlord will not “order” a lockdown or an evacuation, but will make a general announcement advising building occupants of an “active threat” and telling them to take appropriate actions to protect themselves. In other words, tenants are often on their own when it comes to determining the safest course of action in the face of an active shooter or similar critical incident. It is therefore important that critical incident management plans identify the factors to be considered in ordering and executing a lockdown of the workplace or an emergency evacuation.

6. Critical incident drills, simulations and emergency exercises are essential

In addition to pre-planning and employee training, proactive employers also organize periodic critical incident drills to ensure that employees are conditioned to respond expediently when faced with an emergency situation. Emergency drills and exercises are only effective if they are properly designed, documented and followed up in support of continual improvement. The importance of conducting meaningful critical incident drills and taking appropriate follow up actions is aptly underscored in the following quote from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, 2004: 19) publication, ‘Workplace Violence: Issues in Response’:

Practice your plan! No matter how thorough or well conceived, preparation won’t do any good if an emergency happens and no one remembers or carries out what was planned. Training exercises must include senior executives who will be making decisions in a real incident. Exercises must be followed by careful, clear eyed evaluation and changes to fix whatever weaknesses have been revealed.

Last words

The ever-increasing number of critical workplace violence incidents reinforces the need for employers to have a robust critical incident management plan in place. This plan should be flexible enough to apply to the different job functions and workplace activities in existence and should incorporate role-specific guidance and training drills to ensure an effective response to critical incidents.

David Hyde, M.Sc., CPC
David Hyde and Associates

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David Hyde

Security and business risk consultant at David Hyde and Associates
David Hyde, M.Sc, CPC is a security and business risk consultant, author and educator with 26 years of broad-based leadership experience. He is principal consultant with David Hyde and Associates and in this role is a trusted advisor to a number of Canada’s top corporations on operational and reputational due diligence matters. Read more
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One thought on “What can we learn from recent critical workplace violence incidents?
  • David Hyde says:

    Very shortly after this column was published we received news of another tragic mass workplace shooting; this time in Minneapolis, MN. Five employees were killed (including a UPS driver) and two were injured when a co-worker opened fire in the workplace. Although many details are still unclear, it has been confirmed by law enforcement sources that the shooter was taken into the front office at the end of the work day and terminated. He then took out a semi-automatic pistol and began firing.

    As identified in the column, certain work-related activities such as employee terminations come with heightened risks of violence and organizations are well served to approach such activities with caution, exercising due diligence. Prior to any employee termination or serious disciplinary meeting the employer should conduct a thorough risk assessment to evaluate the potential for hostility and potential violence on the part of the affected employee. The findings of the risk assessment, which should be carefully documented, should be used to guide the employer’s actions in conducting the termination or disciplinary meeting in the safest possible manner to all involved.

    Here is a link to an informative NBC News report on this latest tragedy: