Workplace violence concerns broaden

An employee at a Wally’s Foods convenience store in Minneapolis was stabbed while trying to stop a shoplifter. Following an argument, a man was accused of shooting his coworker in the torso at packaging supply company Pak Source in Rock Island, Illinois. The husband of a manager-in-training at a McDonald’s restaurant in High Point, North Carolina, angry over how employees there were treating his wife, allegedly came into the restaurant and brutally assaulted a cook.

That handful of publicized incidents all took place since Dec. 1, 2023. Likely, there were more, according to experts who say most workplace violence goes unreported.

The lack of incident reporting adds to an awareness problem among employers that may only see high-profile and rare events as those that can affect their business. But workplace violence runs the gamut, can trigger a multitude of insurance claims and lawsuits, and highlights emerging workplace safety requirements many companies may not be aware of, experts say.

“The mass shootings have a tendency to garner attention; but, daily, when you talk about a restaurant where somebody’s accosted by an employee, or there’s somebody who’s seeking to have a dating relationship with an employee who doesn’t want it…all of these are acts that occur in the workplace,” said Debra Kirby, Chicago-based global service line lead for security risk consulting at Jensen Hughes, a consultancy that provides workplace violence training.

And employers are largely unprepared, and some don’t understand what counts as violence, according to experts (See related story).

“‘It’ll never happen to us or here.’ We hear that over and over again,” said Kathleen Bonczyk, Winter Garden, Florida-based attorney and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Workplace Violence Prevention Institute, which provides training for companies.

Insurance questions

Companies on the hook for workplace incidents can turn to several insurance policies: workers compensation, general liability and umbrella, management liability, directors and officers liability, even terrorism, if the government classifies an incident as such.

“Workers compensation is the one that is thought of first,” said Paul Primavera, Kansas City, Missouri-based national practice leader for Lockton Cos. LLC. “Then it could hit a large number of other policies,” he said, adding that the cost to cover incidents could be in the “millions.”

Workers comp has gaps, because many states do not require employers to cover mental injuries that often are associated with violence. Connecticut changed its law in 2023 to extend its workers comp post-traumatic stress disorder presumption previously reserved for first responders to “all employees” who witness a harrowing event.

Overall, workers comp insurers have seen a four-fold increase in injuries related to violence over the past 25 years, said Jeff Cole, assistant vice president of national accounts for Stevens Point, Wisconsin-based workers comp insurer Sentry Insurance.

“We’ve also seen a doubling of the average cost per claim,” he said, adding that workers comp claims from violence are complicated and most are driven by individual assaults.

Companies should be most worried about smaller incidents, such as an isolated attack that occurs after an individual has been fired, said Christopher Arehart, Chicago-based senior vice president, first party product manager for North America financial lines, with Chubb Ltd.

“That type of event does play out more and more and more,” he said. “As the stress of our society continues to press on individuals, exacerbated by the pandemic and then reengaged through returning to work and returning into offices, we’re seeing more clashes between individuals, oftentimes employee to employer.”

With workplace violence increasingly a topic at insurance renewals, individual workplace violence policies and related coverages can fill gaps where other policies fall short, giving businesses cash to cover such immediate needs as counseling for employees, job relocation assistance and even building renovations following a larger act of violence where workers are wary of returning to the same job site. Experts say a company’s response to violence can help mitigate later losses, such as claims or lawsuits.

Most employers are unaware of the liability implications until an incident happens, Mr. Arehart said.

Company leaders may become interested in the topic if they see news coverage of an attack at another company, experts say.

“We’re seeing a lot of this being triggered by board-level interest,” said Patrick Rogers, London-based head of risk advisory and crisis management for Alert:24, a unit of Willis Towers Watson PLC.

“We’re working with a few Fortune 500s now on these exact issues where a board member, in most cases the CEO, has just said to the security team or risk management team, ‘What are we doing about this?’ and a lot of the answers are coming back unsatisfactory to them because these are complex issues to manage,” he said.

Renata Elias, Dallas-based senior vice president of consulting solutions for Marsh Risk Advisory, a division of Marsh LLC, said, “Tragically with every incident that occurs there’s an increase in my inbox or on my phone of people reaching out wondering, No. 1, do they have what they need in place, and then, No. 2, can we help them get to that place?”

“We have plans for fires and hurricanes and tornadoes and civil unrest, but a lot of organizations have not thought about a plan for a workplace violence incident,” she said.

Coverage for intentional acts such as workplace violence is also expensive, which is why those managing insurance portfolios and risk are urged to focus on risk management and prevention, experts say.

Change on the horizon

California is leading the charge for improved mitigation of workplace violence risks. This year, businesses in the state will face sweeping changes mandated by S.B. 553, signed into law last year, which requires most employers in the state to implement by July 1 written workplace violence prevention plans that include annual workplace violence prevention training, violent incident logs and other record-keeping measures. It’s the first law of its kind in the country (see related story).

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, under pressure to create a workplace violence standard for health care, has zeroed in on that industry, where the agency says most nonfatal workplace assaults take place.

Andrew C. Brought, a Kansas City, Missouri-based partner with Spencer Fane LLP, said the national focus on health care makes more sense than California’s broader approach. California’s new law is not industry-specific and takes a one-size-fits-all approach, “which doesn’t really make sense because there are certain businesses and there are certain industries where violence is just more prevalent,” he said.

OSHA’s enforcement measures in health care resulted in several publicized citations in 2023 against hospital systems where patients assaulted nurses and other health care professionals, using the catch-all general duty clause as the basis to cite.

Louisiana and Texas, in 2022 and 2023, respectively, passed laws requiring workplace safety mitigation efforts for health care workers. In Texas, a health care violence law goes into effect this year.

Given the implications, “workplace violence is on everyone’s minds these days,” said Eric Conn, Washington-based founding partner of Conn Maciel Carey LLP. “Our phone won’t stop ringing about the new California law.”

Beyond the requirements

Craig Van Asten, safety services manager for Sentry, said companies on the forefront “are starting to recognize and accept that they need to have some formal safety management practices in place.”

But the change has been slow when it comes to preparing for smaller incidents that are more frequent, he said.

Organizations that have active shooter training or “run-hide-fight” training can be complacent about other workplace violence risks, Mr. Van Asten said.

“We talk with our clients about how workplace violence really starts with zero tolerance policies, making sure that we don’t have harassment, bullying in the workplace; ensuring that you have a written program and that you’ve got responsibilities delegated throughout the organization, and that you’ve got the structure and the systems in place, so that we can quickly respond and address these scenarios,” he said.

Companies should have regular discussions about what constitutes violence and have policies in place, said Julie Bolton, Houston-based head of middle market risk engineering for Zurich Insurance Group’s resilience solutions unit. “It’s getting out and talking, making it a regular talking point at meetings,” she said.

Ms. Bonczyk of WVPI said companies can start with their sexual harassment policies.

“My recommendation is to take a sexual harassment policy and modify it so that it becomes a workplace violence prevention policy,” she said. For example, an existing grievance procedure, which tells an employee how to report an event or issue, would work in an anti-violence policy, she said.

“Apply those procedures to workplace violence,” she said. “You’ve already got the policy in place. Then there’s some training, such as situational awareness.”

Ms. Kirby of Jensen Hughes said each organization faces different challenges, and those that know their business and risks — whether it be the type of clients or that workers are more isolated and prone to violence — will fare better.

“In the end, it’s really about people and looking at how to develop a good assessment program to manage employees in terms of what the potential threats are,” she said.

This article was first published in Business Insurance.

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