Q. The world feels like a scary place these days. In light of current events, what are my obligations with respect to providing a safe workplace for employees.

A. You are not alone in asking this important question. The sad and horrific string of mass shootings — from Sandy Hook to San Bernadino to Orlando to Dallas to Baton Rouge — is causing many employers to take a hard look at their workplace violence policies and programs.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to provide a safe working environment. Under the OSH Act, an employer can be found liable if it failed to keep the workplace free from a hazard that employees were exposed to, and the following factors apply:

  1. the hazard is recognized
  2. the hazard was likely to cause death or serious physical harm
  3. there was a feasible and economically viable way to correct the hazard.

In addition to the OSH Act, there are various state laws that impose safety requirements on employers. And, if an employer hires or retains an employee and knows or should know that the employee poses a risk of harm to others, that employer could find itself liable for the tort claims of negligent hiring or negligent retention.

It seems these days that hazards can come from multiple sources — coworkers, family members of coworkers, customers or even strangers. Here are some best practices for establishing or updating your workplace violence prevention program:

  • Put in place a zero-tolerance policy with respect to all types of workplace violence and threats of violence.
  • Prohibit weapons of any kind in the workplace, subject to state laws permitting concealed weapons in a parked car.
  • Educate employees so they understand their rights and obligations.
  • Carefully screen applicants. This is tricky now because certain states and municipalities have instituted “ban the box” legislation, which prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record in the employment application. In most jurisdictions, however, employers are permitted to check an applicant’s criminal record before making a final decision whether to bring the individual on board as an employee.
  • Take measures to increase physical security in your buildings, such as requiring employees to wear identification cards, locking doors and installing an alarm system.
  • Ensure that your company parking lot is adequately lit and secure.
  • Provide your employees with an evacuation plan in case of a dangerous situation, and periodically perform drills so that employees are educated properly on what to do in case of an emergency.
  • Provide resources for stress management, such as an employee assistance program.
  • Train managers on conflict management.

While it is impossible to erase all risk, a well-written workplace violence prevention policy, combined with employee training, physical security measures and proactive human resources controls, can reduce incidences of violence in the workplace and minimize the impact of any violence that does occur.