Controlling the Risk of Violence in the Retail Workplace

by George W. Pearson

Controlling the Risk of Violence in the Retail Workplace

Violence in the workplace results in unwanted and often dire consequences including bodily harm, stress and emotional strain, and the business impact felt by the employer both directly and indirectly. Empirically, human suffering while at work from actual harm or from the fear of harm is unnecessary and avoidable. Until recently, however, the problem has been viewed strictly as one for law


Today, violence is recognized as a national problem requiring a multidisciplinary approach involving safety, health and environmental managers and supervisors, human resources, law enforcement, government and academic professions. Regulators say no employee should come to work believing a violent episode is an expected part of the job. Yet, a persistent trend of violent episodes in the workplace is evident.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that more than 600 fatalities were recorded in 2003, down from more than 1,000 annually in the early 1990s. OSHA reports that workplace homicides were the third-leading cause of workplace fatalities in 2001, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting 639 workplace homicides in the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI, the average annual rate of workplace victimization between 1993 and 1998 for all violent crime was 1,744,300 incidents—900 of which were homicides and 70,100 were robberies. Although ASSE reported in a 2004 survey that 80% of employers surveyed say they have written policies in place addressing workplace violence, only 33% provide training in conflict resolution and 39% have no procedures at all for preventing workplace violence. While governmental organizations are attempting to embrace the problem of workplace violence, businesses seem to be far behind.

From a business perspective, if the basic premise behind a workplace violence program is to prevent harm and injury, a risk management benefit is to curb the horrendous cost of injuries and loss. Losses have a direct effect on the business and the bottom line. It makes sense for retail businesses to join the effort in preventing violence in their workplace by establishing internal workplace violence prevention initiatives.

As a key to the prevention and control of violence in the retail workplace, organizations should have a supportive network in place to assess threats before an incident occurs and to respond to incidents when they do occur. Intervention at the early stages of an incident, once it is known that a threat exists, can mitigate its outcome. By having a team of trained professionals available, there is help for the employee as well as a means to defuse a situation with a nonviolent response and conflict resolution. This is why safety and risk control advisors should insist on the reporting of all types of incidents and the employer should have a mechanism in place to respond and investigate.

In November 2004, NIOSH held a conference to identify ways to bring workplace violence research to practice—in other words, how do we go about preventing, controlling and mitigating violence in the workplace? The goals were four-fold: 1) identify successful strategies; 2) find barriers to the implementation of prevention efforts; 3) recognize research and dissemination gaps; and 4) define what roles various governmental agencies should have in preventing workplace violence.

More than 200 professionals from the health, safety, law enforcement, government and academic professions registered for the two-day program.

After the introductions and initial presentations were complete, a series of breakout sessions and numerous discussions were scheduled over the remainder of the two days that proved to be most beneficial. NIOSH staff will synthesize the results into a work plan for the agency to advance the body of knowledge on preventing workplace violence. What was promised is a NIOSH document that will serve as a roadmap on prevention, control and mitigation strategies, as well as a research agenda for preventing violence in the workplace. Lessons learned were shared at this conference and what follows is a discussion on what retail employers can do to help curb violence in their workplace.

Retail Risks and Response
The risks of workplace violence are classified by NIOSH and the FBI by the sources of the potential violence: criminal intent is when there is intent to commit robbery or theft; violence from a customer or client can come from an irate customer dissatisfied with the goods or services provided; coworker violence is a worker-on-worker attack; and violence stemming from personal relationships are incidents where domestic issues erupt in the workplace.

Retail organizations will typically focus on theft from robbery and the risks from irate customers because these are the obvious threats to their businesses. Their rationale comes from their experience in the frequency and severity of past losses. They should, however, also consider the other sources of violence that can stem from coworker episodes or from a third-party domestic violence incident migrating to the workplace. What protections and controls are in place to protect against robbery? What preventive measures are in place to protect employees from an irate customer? What about coworker violence or third parties who may have troubled relationships with employees?

Robbery. A detailed cash control policy should be in place to minimize cash exposure and to protect the safety of employees. It should cover the handling of cash from the point of contact with the customer to making a daily bank deposit. One goal is to protect the cash from theft, while other measures protect the employees from being targets or victims of crime. For example, a policy can advise employees not to make bank deposits at closing, handle cash while alone in the store or use the rear door to exit the building at night with cash. There are also objectives to keep the amount of cash on hand to a minimum and to use drop safes as often as is practical. These measures deter a perpetrator from stealing cash.

Physical features such as lighting are a powerful risk control factor and can further enhance store safety. Store lighting systems, for example, provide well-lit interior and exteriors. Open and properly lit store interiors also provide visibility from the outside. These measures can deter potential thieves. Access and egress to and from stores should be through clear passages and well-lit areas. Security cameras, alarms that summon police and one-way locking doors that lock from the outside only are some of the security devices to be used in stores.

Irate customers. Customers can become irate when they are unhappy with the cost of a product or service, or with the product or service itself. Customers under the influence of alcohol or drugs can be unreasonable and may refuse to leave the store. It is always wise to involve the police to keep such matters from escalating on premises.

Coworker violence. Coworker violence can be detected early when there are direct threats of violence. The threats may be overheard by third parties which can provide a clue that an attack is being contemplated. It may involve discipline or termination. A toxic or demeaning work environment could provoke a violent response as well.

Personal relationships. Violence stemming from a troubled personal relationship can easily spill over into the workplace, especially if there is a history of domestic violence. Stalking at or near the workplace is a subtle form of violence that can be a sign of a potential attack. Absenteeism, signs of stress and anxiety may suggest victimization. The subject employee should be encouraged to contact the internal threat assessment or crisis response team. As with any matter that is troubling an employee, referring them to an employee assistance program (EAP) is recommended.

What Can Retail Managers Do?
It is common for a threat of violent behavior—such as retribution or a stalking episode—to be overheard before the actual incident takes place or before the potential victim comes forward and makes a complaint. So be aware that a matter requiring attention may not always be an actual incident. In the event of a violent workplace incident, keep these steps in mind.

• Immediately report all incidents and threats of violence to the threat assessment or crisis response team.
• Consider taking training in nonviolent response and conflict resolution. This helps managers recognize, intervene and defuse potentially violent situations.
• Provide prompt emergency medical response to attend to anyone who is injured in an attack.
• Make sure the scene is safe and that personal protection is in place if you are a first-aid responder. In addition, call for emergency medical services as a matter of policy.
• Report violent or potentially violent incidents promptly to local law enforcement.
• Cooperate with company investigators after an incident.
• Ask for a police report and remind affected employees that they have a right to prosecute perpetrators.
• Discuss the incident with other employees in the store to share information on how to prevent similar incidents.
• Offer a critical incident debriefing to the affected employees. Refer them to the company EAP for counseling.
• Provide data to senior managers who could help improve the company’s threat assessments, training, procedures and protective devices.
• Share lessons learned with all retail employees.

What Can Retail Employees Do?
Despite programs and prevention from upper and local management, the truth of the matter is that ultimately, the main risk of retail violence will be borne by your site employees, and their training in violence prevention and awareness may very well make the difference between a manageable risk and tragedy.

Simply passing along a few pointers will not do, either. To truly manage the risk of violence to retail establishment employees, the risk manager must get involved on the ground level, ensuring that employees receive some form of awareness and prevention training, that they understand the importance of it, and that they buy into the training. Since many retail establishments have young or relatively short-term workers, some may not take the risk of violence as seriously as they should. This is just one hurdle to consider. There are others, and the points below offer some places to start when bringing on-site employees up to speed on how they can do their part to make their workplace a violence-free one.

• Learn how to recognize and avoid potentially violent situations. Report violent episodes or threats of violence to supervisors.
• See whether the employer offers training in nonviolent response and conflict resolution. This helps employees recognize and report, or if qualified, intervene and defuse, potentially violent situations.
• Alert supervisors or managers to any concerns about safety or with security systems.
• Support reports of violent incidents or threats of violence with written documentation containing important details of the incident.
• Protect any area of a facility that is the subject of a theft or robbery investigation. Such an area is considered a crime scene.
• When on company business, avoid traveling alone into unfamiliar locations or situations.
• Follow cash control procedures for bank deposits and for removing money from the drop safe.
• Maintain maximum cash drawer limits. Also, advertise in the windows and on the door that strict cash drawer limits are enforced. This will make the establishment a less attractive target for thievery.
• Keep control of facility keys. Store keys to company facilities away from non-employees (other than an authorized contractor).
• Observe the rule for a minimum number of employees necessary in order for any location to conduct business.
• Follow proper store opening and closing procedures.

What Can the Safety, Health and Environment Professional Do?
Violence in the workplace is a social phenomenon that has too often made its presence felt with extremely unwanted severity. It is no longer solely a law enforcement problem, it is a prevention problem. As a result of that paradigm shift, the SH&E professional is now a stakeholder. In many instances, the safety manager is called on to be involved in a workplace violence prevention strategy/solution. Here are some ideas that can guide SH&E professionals in this area:

Support behavioral research. Get involved in professional, trade or other organizations that combat workplace violence. Look into law enforcement, human resources, crisis prevention organizations and professional organizations such as ASSE.

Go national. Participate at the national level with governmental organizations that are moving ahead with a workplace violence prevention agenda. NIOSH is a good example as is OSHA, the Justice Department and the FBI. One suggestion made to NIOSH at a recent workplace violence prevention conference was for researchers to develop an assessment model that organizations can use to channel resources to the risk areas with the corresponding need. This should help answer the question of whether you are addressing the right risks in the right ways.

Look within your own organization. Advance proactive programs to prevent, control and mitigate workplace violence. Develop partnerships and alliances internally with the security, human resources and retail sales departments. Strong alliances in these areas will bode well for successful programs particularly in an area where a team approach is really needed.

Partner with local law enforcement authorities. They can help you monitor area trends in violence prevention and to gain access to resources that can be of use in training managers and employees. in areas with serious  crime problems, a close partnership with the police may be used to get uniformed officers to maintain a presence on the facility during peak hours.

Be aware that threats are antecedents to violence and should be taken seriously. Become competent in threat assessment, crisis management, nonviolent response and conflict resolution. Review what policies already exist in your organization and what protective measures may already be in place to protect against workplace violence that is derived from these policies. Examine them and assess their effectiveness in achieving that objective.

This article was previously published in RM/Insights, the Newsletter of the Risk Management/Insurance Practice Specialty, Vol. 4, No. 3 by the American Society of Safety Engineers.

George Pearson, CSP, ARM, is the health and safety manager for SunCom Wireless, a wireless telecommunications carrier in the Southeast and Puerto Rico. He also administers workers compensation and is the gatekeeper for company-wide property and casualty claims.

Reprinted from Risk Management Magazine.
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