An employee is depressed; you know the staff member is having problems at home. What you don’t expect is his or her partner showing up at the clinic one day to continue an argument from the night before. You also didn’t expect the partner to show up with a gun.
Roxy is a sweet kitty but there is something that just doesn’t feel right about her owner. Roxy’s owner blows up, becoming verbally abusive to you and your tech when you make a suggestion about feeding and treatment she doesn’t like. As she finally stomps out she pushes your tech, who stumbles, hitting the side of her head and cutting it open on the counter as she falls to the floor. Fourteen stitches and a concussion are the result, not to mention a new worker’s comp claim and now this employee is calling OSHA, as well as an attorney.
Mr. H is a wonderful client, always bringing his animals in on time for checkups and vaccinations. He is a dream client who readily embraces all preventative health care measures you suggest.
What you wish he didn’t embrace are your employees, who are coming to you with concerns about inappropriate touching, remarks and now stalking behavior from Mr. H. Jen, a pre-vet student, is being stalked off the job by Mr. H. He even showed up on her front porch with flowers for her and treats for her puppy. Jen was especially freaked out when she went to close the front drapes the other evening before heading to bed and saw him parked across the street watching her from his car with binoculars. She called her dad, who is a local sheriff’s deputy. Investigators then showed up at your door.
One of your partners is known for his temper. He is especially touchy one day and throws an instrument across the room, breaking the glass jar holding the 4 x 4s which sends a glass shard into the cheek of one of your techs. Fortunately, it is a superficial wound and didn’t hit her eye and the Chlorhex that spilled all over the counter did not damage any equipment or documents. This is not however the first time this associate has thrown things and otherwise shown aggressive, out of control behavior at the clinic. At a meeting later in the week a colleague comes up to you and asks you about the situation, pointing out they had let him go two years ago for similar behavior.
These are all examples of workplace violence. While you can control some potential workplace violence, for example that of your employees, by having a clear zero tolerance policy that is reflected and understood in your hiring and firing practices and employee handbook, it is not always as easy to prevent violence at the workplace when it comes from an external source.
These are all OSHA concerns. OSHA takes workplace violence very seriously, especially due to the increase in incidents rising from domestic violence that spill over into the workplace.
So what is your responsibility in terms of prevention? How far does your responsibility for employees extend outside of the office? And very importantly what is your liability?
OSHA is concerned with workplace violence from the following areas:
1) Employee on employee workplace violence
2) Employer vs. employee workplace violence
4) Drug seekers
6) Spillover from the neighborhood, for example transients
7) Spillover from personal lives of staff, in other words domestic violence
OSHA also states that the employer is responsible to provide a safe environment for their employees by providing a secure workplace and providing training. Training is to inform of potential hazards- including workplace violence and also to provide employees with the tools they need to protect themselves and prevent serious injury. In terms of your responsibilities for employees outside of the workplace your liability is mitigated if you have in fact documented your training on workplace violence as well as documented and reported potentially dangerous behavior as it occurs.
One of the major concerns for OSHA in terms of workplace violence is domestic violence spillover.
There has been a dramatic increase in this type of incident in recent years. This can come in the form of significant others of staff members being aggressive to their partner at work, or even trying to sabotage your practice. Spouses have been known to stalk the worker at the workplace as well as do physical damage to the building. Sabotage has come in the form of graffiti, physical damage to the building and even equipment inside. A new twist has been with social media: attacks on you, your clinic, your employees, your competency on social media sites such as Facebook.
There can be serious "collateral" damage to other employees when, for example, another member of your team tries to step in to diffuse an argument, which can lead to an escalation of the situation instead, and may include injuries to that person.
Stalking cases have also been increasing, some resulting in attacks. Stalking by clients has been the latest in this trend. It is usually a male stalking one of your female employees; however, it can also be other combinations: female on male, male on male, female on female- it is all frightening and all potentially dangerous. Most are stalkers who start out as clients with an obsessive "love" of animals - the ones who just hate abuse, want to kill abusers, and just so admire all you do to take care of the critters. They start asking about the little rescued kitties in the front cage with mom that are up for adoption and oh how about "those poor puppy mill dogs I saw on the news that animal control brought to you to evaluate and treat." Their admiration of your caring for animals moves to a new level when they seek you out for questions.
The next stage is pursuing you outside of the clinic. You may live and work in a small enough town where you don’t automatically recognize the "coincidence" of the outside contact. But at some point you realize this is more than coincidence. You don’t know what to do, though you mention it to friends and colleagues at work. But what if this is happening to one of your employees?
Again what is your responsibility in terms of prevention? How far does your responsibility for employees extend outside of the office?
Education and prevention are always the two keys for OSHA. Communication is essential: proactive and preemptive communication means encouraging employees to come to you immediately with concerns. Documenting the conversations with employees is essential to make sure you have a paper trail in case things escalate or become actionable.
Educating your staff on workplace violence and the potential sources as well as various situations is key.
Some clinics also invite neighborhood police representatives to do a self-defense training workshop, as well as conflict resolution training.
The OSHA program I designed includes training on workplace violence issues, as well as dealing with difficult people. Included are specific examples and steps to work through possible scenarios, looking at the effectiveness of those different reactions.
OSHA also wants us to also look at prevention:
· Are the doors and windows secured?
· Does the public have easy access into the clinic?
· Do you have an alarm system or panic button system?
· How is the lighting around the outside of the building as well as in the parking area?
· Do you use a buddy system for after-hours work?
· Are your employees trained on workplace violence issues?
Workplace violence has unfortunately become a serious concern, and we all need to evaluate our training programs to make sure we include these issues. Communication will always be an important key to safety so make sure you talk to your employees and that they know your door is always open for them to come to you with any concerns.
While we are not saying we need to become the babysitters or psychologists and marriage counselors of our staff, what we are saying is a little bit of prevention and proactive action goes a long way in preventing an increasingly serious workplace hazard.
Chery F. Kendrick, DVM, MPVM, MLT, CFS is a writer, educator, speaker and consultant. She is the nation’s leading veterinary regulatory control expert, and spends time in Washington D.C., advocating for the veterinary profession at the various regulatory agencies. Her manuals and training programs are used by clinics and animal care facilities nationwide. She speaks nationwide at association meetings and workshops. Please feel free to contact her with your questions or visit her web site at www.KendrickTechServices.com