Avoiding flying fists

An often-overlooked aspect of occupational health and safety (OHS) is preventing violence in the workplace – whether from an external threat, or interpersonal violence between co-workers

Violence in the workplace is a bit of a grey area. The building or company security is often responsible for prevention, while the human resources department addresses the aftermath of interpersonal conflict. However, Gerard Labuschagne, director of L&S Threat Management, believes OHS officers have a vested interest in ensuring a safe workplace.

Whether the threat of violence is external or among employees, it can decrease productivity, increase stress and result in absenteeism or even resignations. External threats of violence on an individual resulting from personal matters, such as domestic violence, can also have a negative impact on the entire workforce.

“Most companies think that domestic violence is not their problem, but rather a private matter. This can lead to secondary victimisation when the employee is asked to take care of it,” Labuschagne explains. It is important for companies to understand that the abusive spouse could sabotage an employee’s work opportunities as a way of exercising control.

The spouse can cause distress and anxiety by showing up at the employee’s place of work. If the situation escalates to physical violence, it can also cause stress among co-workers. Creating a safe work environment will ensure that the entire workforce can be productive. This can include stricter access control, monitoring the premises, employing security guards and installing cameras.

In addition to protecting employees from external threats, it is important to protect them against potential interpersonal violence that can take place within the workplace. Non-physical forms of workplace violence, such as harassment and bullying, can lead to physical violence. A particular concern for OHS officers is the bullying that can occur between a manager and his or her team.

Labuschagne uses the example of an employee who punched his employer. On closer inspection, it was found that the employer had verbally abused the employee. This knowledge empowered the company to make the right decision for the entire organisation. The employee was disciplined, but the manager was fired – ensuring that other employees wouldn’t be bullied.

The best approach to preventing workplace violence between employees is to introduce clear policies on handling violence, preventing harassment and bullying, as well as creating safe spaces where employees can share any concerns or vent. It is important to frequently remind employees about the policies and practices.

Training sessions can be hosted on a regular basis to discuss topics like what constitutes sexual and other harassment, what is considered inappropriate language and acceptable workplace attire. Creating a safe work environment for all employees will improve productivity and job satisfaction.

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