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Training Aims to Prevent Workplace Shootings

A person is holding a yellow caution tape in a warehouse.

​Mass shootings have become more common across the country in recent years, making it even more critical for employers to ensure that their workplaces are safe and that workers understand how to handle active shooter scenarios.

Many employers offer training on procedures to follow if workplace violence might occur. The training also teaches employees how to defuse potentially dangerous situations at their workplace. For example, what should you do if a dispute erupts between two angry co-workers, or what if an employee's abusive boyfriend shows up at the workplace with a gun?

"Any workplace safety training should be tailored to fit the needs of the specific employer, but should include training on how to address scenarios, including active shooters, regardless of whether they are a co-worker, manager or someone outside of the company," said Kate Gallen, an attorney with Polsinelli in Kansas City, Mo.

"Strong workplace security trainings address the highest-risk scenarios for employees, and risk varies dramatically, depending on industry, location, prior history, etc.," said Alana Genderson, an attorney with Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C. "For example, an employee who is public-facing encounters different risks than your typical office worker."

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), factors that may increase the risk of workplace violence include:

  • Exchanging money with the public.
  • Working with volatile, unstable people.
  • Working alone or in isolated areas.
  • Working where alcohol is served.
  • Working late at night.
  • Working in areas with high crime rates.

"As a best practice, employers should incorporate workplace violence/active shooter procedures into their emergency action/preparedness plan and train employees, so they know where to escape in an emergency and where meet-up points may be located," recommended Melanie Paul, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Atlanta.

Three Levels of Warning Signs

Employees should know how to recognize warning signs so they can help prevent violence. "The goal of a workplace safety training session is prevention, so it is key for companies to provide employees with the tools to recognize situations that may become violent or unsafe," Gallen said.

Whether from an outsider or an employee, early warning signs of violence include behavior that is intimidating, bullying, disrespectful, uncooperative or verbally abusive. Employers should have a protocol for documenting and reporting such behavior to a supervisor or HR, Paul said.

Getting more severe, the next level of warning signs includes:

  • Arguing with customers, vendors, co-workers or managers.
  • Refusing to obey policies and procedures.
  • Sabotaging equipment.
  • Stealing property for revenge.
  • Verbalizing wishes to hurt someone.
  • Sending threatening notes.
  • Viewing themselves as victimized by managers.

In those situations, it may be appropriate to call building security or 911 and document the behavior.

The highest level of warning signs includes suicidal threats, physical fights, destruction of property at the workplace, display of extreme rage and using weapons to harm others. In those situations, call 911 right away, Paul said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Understanding Workplace Violence Prevention and Response]

Federal and State Laws

Federal law doesn't dictate what topics must be covered in workplace violence training.

"There is no OSHA workplace violence standard and no requirement for active shooter training. OSHA has published guidance for certain industries, like late-night retail establishments and health care and social services, as in those industries, workplace violence is a recognized hazard," Paul said. "As we have more active shooter and other public violence incidents in this country, OSHA may start to say it is a recognized hazard and may pursue enforcement of the general-duty clause in other industries and workplaces. For example, OSHA cited a mall security company for a general-duty clause violation for workplace violence after a security guard was shot and killed by a mall patrol in Idaho last year."

The general-duty clause requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

"Even without an OSHA standard or enforcement of the general-duty clause, these [workplace violence] occurrences can be a civil liability, and employers should take heed to protect their employees in these situations as much as possible through awareness and training," Paul said.

Employers also need to be aware of state laws that address workplace violence. "Some states have passed specific standards on workplace violence," Genderson noted. "California has a workplace security standard for the health care industry and a draft law in the works for general industry sectors in California."

Workplace Shootings

Since 2009, there have been 289 mass shootings in the United States, resulting in 1,622 people killed and 1,074 people wounded, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention nonprofit organization based in New York City.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit data collection group based in Washington, D.C., fatal gun violence has occurred at many workplaces this year alone, including:

  • An elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
  • A supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y.
  • A nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo.
  • A Walmart store in Chesapeake, Va.
  • A manufacturing facility in Smithburg, Md.
  • A hospital in Tulsa, Okla.
  • A mall food court in Greenwood, Ind.
  • A bar in Kenosha, Wis.
  • A hotel in Plainfield, Ind.
  • A bar in Minneapolis.
  • A bar in Hartwell, Ga.
  • A lounge and deli in Cleveland.
  • A 7-Eleven convenience store in Capitol Heights, Md.
  • A Safeway grocery store in Bend, Ore.
  • A nightclub in Chicago.


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