Are Employers Liable for Workplace Violence?

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As workplace violence increases in the United States, so do questions about employee liability. Here’s what you should know.

Workplace violence is a growing reality for the American public. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that every year 1.7 million people become victims of violent crime in the workplace. But, are employers liable when employees are victimized at work?

What Is Workplace Violence?

Violence in the workplace can take many forms, including assault, threats, and verbal abuse, and can be committed by either an outsider or a fellow worker. The workplace is defined as any building or home where work takes place and includes parking lots and travel to and from work. Employers are required to provide an environment free from physical harm or death, and when they fail to protect workers, they can be held legally liable.

What Creates Employer Liability?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are required to create an environment that is “free from hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” If an employee (or the person’s family) can prove that the employer had or should have had prior knowledge regarding a violent act, but did not implement reasonable preventatives, the employer may be held legally responsible.

Liability may be found if an employer ignores the threat of violence, hires someone who poses a threat without conducting proper background checks or doesn’t provide proper physical security.

How Can Employers Avoid Liability?

Employers and companies should take care to examine the backgrounds of all potential employees and evaluate possible factors that could lead to violence to avoid liability. Previous acts or threats of workplace violence should be carefully scrutinized. Also, a strict zero-tolerance policy against violence should be implemented, and physical working conditions should be optimized to protect employees from physical violence from either co-workers or outsiders.

Employers should take all threats very seriously, even if it seems like a person is just “blowing off steam.” If the person making the threats were to come back to the workplace at a later point and injure or kill someone, extreme negligence might be found against management. Care should also be taken to remove access to employee areas from anyone who has been laid off or fired. Ask for the return of keys, disable swipe cards, and if necessary change access codes and locks.

Don’t take chances with employees’ safety when it comes to workplace violence. Take the time to review all company procedures. Identify vulnerable areas and correct them. Failure to do so can leave a company liable for huge damages if an employee is hurt or killed in the workplace.