On the afternoon of May 31, 2019, a disgruntled public employee fatally shot twelve people and wounded four others in a mass shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Eleven were city employees, and one was a contractor in the building there to obtain a permit. The building housed the city’s public works, utilities, and planning departments in an open-government facility with no additional security to enter but security passes required for accessing employee areas and conference rooms.

Violence in the workplace is not a new phenomenon. The most recent data gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Justice on workplace violence specific to public employees found that from 2002 to 2011, about 96 percent of workplace violence against government workers was against state, county, and local employees. Public employers and employees in particular are uniquely exposed to workplace violence.

What is Workplace Violence?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. Workplace violence may affect and involve employees, clients, consumers, and visitors.

California’s Workplace Violence Prevention Standards

Cal/OSHA is the state program responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers. Cal/OSHA requires employers to have an Injury Illness Prevention Program that includes procedures for identifying, evaluating, and correcting workplace hazards. Additionally, other laws reflect an employee’s right to a safe workplace, including Labor Code section 6400 which requires that “[e]very employer shall furnish employment and a place of employment that is safe and healthful for the employees therein.” Additionally, Labor Code section 6401 requires employers in general terms to do what is “reasonably necessary to protect the life, safety, and health of employees.”

What Can Employers Do To Help Prevent Workplace Violence?

Employers can take the following steps to help prevent workplace violence and to improve the workplace violence prevention plan they have in place:

  • Applicant screening: Most public agencies utilize some type of applicant screening process. During the pre-employment stages, applications and interviews are some of the early and effective methods for learning about an applicant, as some responses may raise red flags. At the interview stage, employers should look for gaps in work history that could indicate dishonesty or prior employment problems. To the extent possible, employers should ask applicants fully to explain any prior misconduct and/or imposed disciplined. In doing so, the employer must be careful to avoid making improper pre-employment inquiries that violate an employee’s right to privacy or other laws. Employers may conduct a criminal history check after offering a job. However, with the exception of certain positions, the law requires an individualized assessment about the applicant’s conviction history (such as considering the nature and gravity of the offense, the time that has passed since the conviction, and the nature of the job the applicant is seeking) prior to revoking an offer due to the applicant’s criminal history.
  • Written Policies: Employers should create, maintain, and evaluate workplace violence policies and procedures, and determine what, if any, additional policies and procedures need to be updated or addressed. Employers should also collect and review reports of any prior workplace violence events or threats of violence.
  • Training and Performance Evaluations: Employers should train supervisors, managers, and employees on risk factors for workplace violence and ways to prevent such incidents. Employers should also conduct regular performance evaluations in order to identify and address employee performance and dissatisfaction early on and provide guidance on improvement, since warning signs of a potentially violent situations may be found in job performance evaluations.
  • Stay Informed: The California Legislature recently passed legislation aimed at preventing workplace violence. For example, AB 61, signed by Governor Newsom on October 11, 2019 and effective September 1, 2020, expands existing law to allow public employers to file a gun violence restraining order against employees who show signs of a significant danger of harm by firearm.

LCW provides trainings in workplace violence prevention. For more information about trainings and policy reviews, please click here or contact Cynthia Weldon, the Director of Marketing and Training Department at 310.981.2000.