Preventing Workplace Violence and Implications When We Don’t

Preventing Workplace Violence and Implications When We Don’t

“This year, the U.S. has already had more than 30 mass shootings.” That quote alone would comfortably capture attention no matter what time of year it was reported. And yet that is how we started the first month of 2023. In fact, this very statement alluding to targeted violence was reported by NPR’s Ari Shapiro in January of 2023, just 25 days into the new year.

The NPR story centered around the impact violence is having on mental health and identified that these shootings were a significant cause of stress for the general public. Even when we are not directly impacted from the reported violence, we still feel significant anxiety and begin to worry about our own safety, particularly in the workplace where most of these incidents occur. 

No longer are these attacks generally interpreted as isolated incidents taking place only in specific industries or businesses. They have become common in the American psyche and the moniker, “workplace violence” is well understood. In fact, the US Department of Labor cites acts of violence and other injuries as the third-leading cause of fatal workplace injuries in the US.

Workplace Violence stats
Source: National Threat Assessment Center

For those of us who have not been directly impacted by the violence, we can also increasingly feel distressed, and our continued hypervigilance is eroding our sense of normalcy. Those who are directly affected by these tragedies, especially those who experience the most loss, have increased potential for PTSD, depression, and lasting traumas associated with tremendous grief.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people want to do something to counter this violence but continue to be frustrated at the inability to affect and see changes. Whether it’s the same debate for or against gun control, both sides are tired of the stalemate. Though it’s becoming clearer that society is no longer satisfied with the status quo and are demanding accountability in the workplace. This accountability is being handed down through the courts.

Courts demand accountability with billions in fines.

From government and military agencies to individual corporate officers, courts are demanding tighter scrutiny by employers, and oversight regarding how personnel complaints and concerns of violence are handled in the workplace.  This increasing pressure for accountability is forcing organizations of all sizes to confront its own responsibility in preventing violence and protecting its employees. 

The American Bar Association cites a shift in recent court decisions and predicts the trend will be that more will be held liable for failing to prevent acts of violence. Particularly as incidents become more frequent and more widely reported, the argument that an incident was unforeseeable is no longer good enough.

The following jury awards, court rulings, and pending lawsuits align with this trend. Juries are demanding prevention and preparedness even from government agencies who have traditionally enjoyed a level of impunity. Liability and accountability are being sought, and in some cases, delivered in unprecedented monetary sums.   

  • The Justice Department was found negligent and will pay $130 million to the victims of the Parkland high school shootings because the FBI failed to properly investigate tips about the assailant it had received prior to the shooting. The lawsuit argued that the crime was preventable. The FBI acknowledged that they had not followed its own protocols and failed to pursue information provided from their tipline and social media postings from the assailant.
  • The US Air Force was ordered to pay more than $230 million to victims of those killed in Sutherland Springs by a former Air Force Airman (employee) who was discharged in 2014. The court ruled that the Air Force was liable because it failed to report (six times) the Airman’s previous assault and domestic violence convictions and other related information to the FBI. As that may have prevented him from buying the rifle used to in the attack.   
  • MGM resorts agree to pay $800 million settlement to shooting victims. 58 people were killed in the attack where the assailant shot at victims from his hotel room overlooking an open-air concert in Las Vegas. The MGM casino was accused of negligence, wrongful death and liability, failing to protect people at the concert venue, and failing to stop the shooter from amassing weapons and ammunition in his room over several days.
  • Cable company Charter Spectrum was ordered to pay over $1 billion to the family of the victim who was murdered in her home by a Spectrum technician that had previously performed a service call to the residence. Despite the company arguing that the employee’s act of violence was unforeseeable, the court cited Spectrum’s lack of due diligence by hiring the employee without reviewing his work history and ignored behavioral red flags during his employment. The jury had initially awarded the victim more than $7 billion in damages, but was lowered to $1.1 billion by the presiding judge.
  • A $50 million lawsuit launched against Walmart by an employee who survived a workplace shooting perpetrated by a Walmart manager, alleges that the company knew of the assailant’s violent behavior and failed to protect the workers. The employee is faulting Walmart and accusing the company of not taking investigative action despite numerous complaints about his behavior. This case is still pending as of March 2023.
  • Victims of the Uvalde school shooting have filed a $27 billion class-action lawsuit against the police, the city, and school officials for the attack. 19 children and two teachers were among the victims. The lawsuit claims their deaths could have been preventable if not for the collective negligence and failure of the law enforcement officials at the scene. A separate group of survivors have also filed an additional $6 billion suit against Daniel Defense, a company that manufactures the firearm used. This case is still pending as of March 2023.

In all of the cases above, courts are finding convincing arguments surrounding the prevention of these attacks. That is, these targeted attacks were foreseeable and could have been prevented. The courts determined that the responsible parties were negligent, failed to act, and did not satisfy their duty to protect their employees and the community. 

But is workplace violence and targeted attacks preventable?

A recent publication by the US Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, analysis of 173 attacks in the US from 2016 to 2020, offered an unambiguous response. To quote from its executive summary, “…targeted violence is preventable when communities are equipped with the appropriate tools, training, and resources…” Because most locations of attacks were businesses, one of the key implications of this report is squarely directed at businesses; to establish a workplace violence prevention plan to better “identify, assess, and intervene with current employees, former employees, and customers who may pose a risk of violence.”

As reported by the American Bar Association, the perception of whether targeted violence and incidents involving violence in the workplace are foreseeable has begun to shift. In other words, exposure to litigation and significant penalties can now more readily include everyone from business owners of where the incident occurred, to security firms and law enforcement, and even parents of the assailant.

As was the case where parents of a Michigan school shooting suspect was charged with involuntary manslaughter for missed opportunities in preventing the tragedy despite knowing that their son had access to a weapon, and that he was deeply troubled. Indeed, the legal bar of foreseeability and preventability has been lowered. 

Source: American Bar Association/litigation over mass shootings

Crime is trending upward.

According to a recent 60 Minutes interview, FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged that there was a 29% increase in murder in the US in 2020, almost 5,000 more people were killed than in 2019. Violent crimes such as murder and aggravated assault saw record increases, by another 4 percent in 2021. And in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in August 2022, the FBI Director stated that the top concern from law enforcement leadership around the country is the increasing violence in their communities.

Source: UPI Media

Exacerbating this trend are the difficult challenges still present in communities where trust remains low for law enforcement and demands to defund the police continue.

Source: CNBC

Some cities around the country are seeing how lawlessness hampers economic growth and recovery. Starbucks cited increased violence and the need to protect employees and customers when it shuttered 16 stores, with six of them in Seattle alone. Amazon is taking similar approaches by moving employees, or simply not renewing leases in some of its downtown locations, impacting approximately 2,000 employees.

Source: GeekWire

A demand for remedies.

The outcry by the public for remedy has also caused state legislatures to act. New Jersey recently proposed legislation requiring places of worship, movie theaters, and arenas where more than 500 to 5,000 people can gather respectively, to enact enhanced security requirements and submit emergency plans for active shooters. The state of Tennessee now requires private security guards receive de-escalation training before they can work in night clubs and bars.

As recent as 2017, the Canadian province of Ontario enacted comprehensive requirements for companies to assess the risk of workplace violence in their facilities and present a full emergency plan to the government’s joint health and safety committee. At PRS, we highlighted the specific requirements of the new legislation at the time and our article can be found here

How can we help you?

As violence increases, the cost of negligence increases as well. No longer are businesses and companies shielded from traditional beliefs that used to protect organizations from third party negligence. Juries are sending clear messages on who they consider the liable party. Legislatures are also aggressively seeking ways to address the violence, by mandating training and ensuring that emergency plans are developed for each and every workplace.

In other words, we are all on notice to ensure that our organizations develop plans for workplace violence prevention, conduct threat and security assessments, and update emergency response plans.

For nearly 10 years, PRS has been active in assisting our clients to comply with latest requirements of workplace violence prevention laws and associated best practices. We are uniquely qualified and have certified professionals on our team to help you prepare and protect your people. Call on us to help you get started on a workplace violence prevention plan or a security risk assessment.

How Situational Awareness Can Improve Your Safety in 2022

How Situational Awareness Can Improve Your Safety in 2022

Situational Awareness

The term Situational Awareness is quickly being relegated to jargon and used so often that its meaning is becoming too vague for many of us to fully understand and appreciate. At the risk of diluting more of its impact, the intention of this post is to help improve organizational capacity for Situational Awareness. Before that can be achieved, however, we must first offer (yet another) brief definition.

What is it exactly?

At its core, Situational Awareness is observation plus perception, underpinned by understanding. And that level of understanding is informed by how familiar we are with our surroundings and there environmental and cultural norms.

By understanding how we can increase our observations, we can then help to reduce the risk of injury to ourselves by more accurately recognizing potential threats to our security.

Our level of awareness depends on how observant we are, and in varying degrees, help us make sense of the situation around us. As humans, we benefit from multiple senses working together to inform our perception of where we are, and what might be happening.

And that perception can be inherently subjective because it is supported by our personal experiences, professional training, and cultural values.

A brief thought experiment:

Suppose we woke up suddenly in an unfamiliar setting feeling completely groggy. It is still dark and through the window we notice it getting brighter. In short order, our senses work together to increase awareness of our current situation. Our eyes scan the room for not just casual features, but whether anyone or anything present can be a threat to our safety.

We notice the smell of bacon and conclude there is a kitchen nearby or perhaps it’s breakfast time. We feel a chill in the air, hear the wind howling outside, and assume there’s a winter storm. Absent the sound of traffic, the notable quiet helps us imagine ourselves far from the city.

After a few minutes, we begin to settle our minds, stand, and observe our surroundings a bit more deliberately. We now notice our personal luggage by the door, a ski brochure next to the TV stand with ads in a foreign language, and the power outlets on the walls are shaped differently.

It’s all coming back. It has been a few years, but still familiar. We take a deep breath, smile, and realize we are finally back at this mountain resort, safe, and recovering from the long travel … and a few sleeping pills.

Let’s break this down.

In this scenario, our observation of new surroundings (E.g., initial scan of the room) is then coupled with our perception (E.g., the smell of bacon, feeling chilly, and noticing the quiet) to inform what becomes our ultimate understanding/judgment that we are in a familiar environment.

That conclusion required making sense of observable clues and analyzing the information based on how we were feeling, at that moment.

How observant are we?

After the attacks of 9/11, New York City created the “[if you] See Something, Say Something” campaign, which has since been adopted by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

DHS’s efforts to promote general awareness nationwide included videos (still found on YouTube) that challenged viewers’ level of attention and perception.

These videos usually contained a fast-paced scene where multiple actions happen simultaneously. Modeled after the classic “invisible gorilla” experiment, viewers are asked to keep their attention on one area of the action and were then tested to see if they noticed changes happening in other areas during the same scene.

While overall feedback of the videos was mixed, anecdotal successes for the campaign have been attributed by many safety experts who cite increases in bystander reporting. That is, more people are starting to say something after they see something thus generating more situational awareness.

But how can we improve this skill?

Honing our capacity for Situational Awareness can be likened to a journey. As with most journeys, it is dynamic, and the landscape changes constantly. Practice and repetition help to sharpen our mental filters, making us more capable of recognizing things that don’t quite fit. Deliberate observation is necessary.

Most of us do this daily without much effort.

In the virtual world, when scanning our emails, for example, we have a sense of awareness of spam, phishing attempts, and potential cybercrime.

From confirming a sender’s full URL or taking note of grammatical and cultural tones, we are increasingly adept at Cybersecurity and identifying digital threats – and which attachments NOT to download.

It is no different in the physical space.

When driving, we would likely reduce our speed when we notice a police officer nearby, and we’d probably avoid parking in a poorly lit area of a garage. We might move away from rowdy and boisterous crowds, etc… And we’ve come to do these things almost instinctively because we have grown more observant through exposure, experience, and training. Just like what we do daily in cyberspace.

To put it another way, we have increased our familiarity with these types of scenarios and can now respond more effectively to decrease the risk to our own safety.

From the commuter train to the corner office, our daily journey is dynamic and offers abundant opportunities to help sharpen our Situational Awareness.

The more times we experience something, such as going to a concert or navigating through a busy airport, we become ever more familiar with what is supposed to be routine, and “normal.”

So how can we improve on these skills and get to our conclusions more efficiently? And can we get there in a timely manner? The answer can be a resounding “yes!” and here’s how we can begin to increase our capabilities.

But first, a case study in situational awareness: Despite popular media often describing catastrophic events being thwarted by those with almost super-human abilities and world-class training, the reality is that a vast majority of incidents are not prevented by a Jason Bourne, but rather, regular people who are just more aware of their surroundings.

The following testimonial from a senior member of the PRS team offers an ideal opportunity to analyze a scenario most of us are familiar with. Reading through the narrative, we can easily picture ourselves at the scene and analyze what we would do in this situation.

In the following narrative, let’s consider two questions.

1) What would we have done?

2) How can we help prevent/mitigate this situation?  

Vehicle appearing to be abandoned at SEA-TAC International Airport – Seattle, WA.

“I took the attached picture mid-day on Saturday, July 30th, 2022, at SeaTac airport.  The airport was quite busy at the time with travelers’ comings and goings.  This vehicle was situated curbside from baggage claim.  As I walked up to take my position on the curb to await my ride, I immediately noticed no one was in or with the vehicle.  I surveyed the area and did not notice any individual(s) who appeared to be keeping an eye on the vehicle.  I waited a couple of minutes to see if someone may approach the vehicle figuring there is a chance they ran inside to help an elderly family member or friend or perhaps had to use the restroom.” 

As 3-4 minutes went by and no one arrived or appeared to be minding the vehicle, I snapped this photo.  I looked up Port of Seattle Police to report what I felt was a suspicious vehicle.  As I located only a number to text or a non-emergency line, I decided to go the route of texting, thinking perhaps it may be a line more urgently monitored.  Just as I was about to hit send on that text a younger-looking female approached the vehicle, albeit somewhat suspiciously as she appeared to have a hesitancy to stay with the vehicle.  In short order, however, she decided to enter the vehicle and sit on the passenger side.  At that point, I felt it was no longer necessary to report the incident as a suspicious vehicle and within another 30-45 seconds a few others appeared, jumped in the vehicle, and departed.” 

“While all ended well in this scenario, the spider senses went up because of the training I have had over the years to identify situations such as this and handle them accordingly.  I realize time is of the essence in reporting potentially suspicious items or equipment, in this case, I did not visibly see anything in the vehicle itself. Could an item have been in the trunk that had a nefarious purpose?  Perhaps.  My senses told me otherwise though once the initial female arrived and stayed with the vehicle.”

As to the first question, “What would we have done?”, given the circumstances there’s not much more that could be done at that time. Attempts were already being made to contact airport authorities and was only discontinued when the owner(s) of the vehicle returned.

Playing the “What if?” game.

We all do it, and we should. Our brains are naturally wired to seek out solutions and understand how we can best survive. Taking the above scenario a bit further, however, if we supposed that more minutes went by and the vehicle increasingly looked like it was abandoned, then we would be forced to act.

What if, there was something in the trunk?

We’d likely move farther away from the vehicle and then attempt to recruit others nearby (I.e., call out to airport employees and others, etc..) to help keep the area clear until law enforcement officials can respond and properly secure the scene and begin mitigating strategies on the car (E.g., explosives detection, etc…). Indeed, our individual efforts would have to be amplified for us to clear the area.  

How can Situational Awareness be amplified (force-multiplied)?

In the US military, the use of a small number of specialists to train a larger force is designed to create a force-multiplying effect. Extra sets of eyes and ears will always help.

Simply put, a force multiplier can be anything or anyone that increases the effectiveness of that force.

In our airport scenario, the force-multiplying elements are human bystanders, airport employees, and fellow travelers who are willing to help. However, that presupposes they have been trained and will cooperate in ways that do not complicate the scene, and cause even more confusion. It’s not an ideal situation, but it might be the next best thing given the apparent absence of other security professionals. 

The benefits of having even just one security agent.

Regarding Situational Awareness, a more effective force-multiplier is a professional security agent. Organizations that employ physical security agents have an inherent advantage of trusted professionals who are trained to keep a watchful presence and respond to incidents.

Beyond training and knowing proper response protocols, these agents also have the benefit of regular interaction with company personnel, the facility, and its surrounding area – all factors working to increase their understanding of what is normal and what might be otherwise concerning.

Physical security agents can also serve as a resource for employees (and bystanders) to report incidents and suspected wrongdoing without fear of judgment or retaliation.

Professional security agents are force-multipliers benefiting the entire organization, as well as neighboring facilities and indeed, the community. From assisting hybrid employees unfamiliar with the office to spotting hazards (E.g., broken and malfunctioning equipment, etc.…) and preventing trespassers with nefarious intent, professional security agents’ advantages are immeasurable to an organization and its assets.

Their high level of Situational Awareness is honed through consistent observation of their environment. In fact, an organization’s overt security presence also signals to would-be attackers that they are not an easy target for crime. 

At PRS, we help protect organizations by preparing their personnel. Contact us should you want to learn more about our services.