By James Sharpe
The recent triple murder by a disgruntled employee at a California cement plant and quarry is a jarring wakeup call to the mining community that its workplaces are not off limits to workplace violence (WPV).
As such, mine operators should consider taking immediate steps to deal with it. Of course, the foremost reason is to protect employees. Add to that the potential for adverse publicity and business disruption and the case for effective action becomes still more compelling. The possibility of legal liability also exists. It is not hard to envision wrongful death litigation brought by families of victims, especially if the violence was reasonably foreseeable and the employer took no effective action to counter it.
In workplaces under the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there is also the possibility of citations written under the general duty clause of the law the agency administers. In fact, a month before the California shootings, OSHA issued a directive on enforcement procedures for investigating or inspecting incidents of workplace violence. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has no general duty clause, and our request for information on how the mine safety agency planned to respond to the tragedy had not been answered when this column was written.
Because WPV has been one of the top four causes of death at work over the past 15 years, considerable resources have been devoted to developing effective intervention strategies aimed at prevention. NIOSH defines workplace violence as violent acts (including physical assaults and threats of assaults) directed toward persons at work or on duty. Researchers have sub-divided workplace violence into four types. What occurred in California was Type III violence, i.e. violence against co-workers, supervisors or managers by a former or, in this case, a current employee.
Besides NIOSH, the state of California has been out in front on this issue. Its Guidelines for Workplace Security note that, because Type III events are more closely associated with employer-employee relationships than any other type, “an employer’s considerate and respectful management of his or her employees represents an effective [prevention] strategy.” This is especially important when an employer action is perceived as threatening an employee’s continuing employment status, such as with layoffs, reductions-in-force, or disciplinary action.
The Guidelines note that to prevent Type III events effectively, employers need to establish a clear anti-violence management policy, apply the policy consistently and fairly to all employees, including supervisors and managers, and provide appropriate supervisory and employee training. Advice published by NIOSH stresses the importance both of management commitment and worker involvement in developing and implementing WPV prevention policies and programs.
What Constitutes WPV?
Program documentation should include definitions that clearly indicate what behaviors constitute WPV. Prohibited actions must be specified, and the specific consequences of those actions spelled out. So-called threat assessment teams should review and respond to all reported physical, verbal or threatened violence. The teams must operate within the framework of written guidance. Mechanisms need to be in place to support and protect affected individuals. The program should be well integrated with other company programs.
Interdepartmental collaboration is necessary throughout the process. This includes assuring various specialties are represented on the threat assessment teams. Besides management and labor, these might be human resources, safety and health, security, employee assistance, legal, and communications.
Every employee should be trained on the company’s WPV prevention policy and program, with refresher training provided periodically. The training must include instruction on the importance of reporting incidents, including harassment, bullying, stalking, etc., and on management responses to incidents. A system of observing and reporting worrisome changes in employee behavior is also crucial. Prospective employees should be thoroughly evaluated through background checks and reference verification at hire.
A list of resources to aid mine operators can be found in Appendix A of OSHA’s directive at www.osha.gov/OshDoc/Directive_pdf/CPL_02-01-052.pdf.
James Sharpe holds a master’s degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene, health and safety. He can be reached at