The shocking events that unfolded on March 9 at The Pathway Home social services organization at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville proved that our local nonprofits are not immune to the tragedy of workplace violence. A veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who had received treatment at the nonprofit agency, and was later expelled, returned to the facility during a staff going away party and proceeded to take three staff members hostage. I followed the news all day, like many others, believing that eventually everyone would be released unharmed. But that wasn’t the case. Sadly, the former client of The Pathway Home fatally shot the three women he had taken hostage. That dreadful situation immediately made me realize how vulnerable our local nonprofits are to the possibility of workplace violence.
In 2016, the US Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) released an informative publication called Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Heathcare and Social Services Workers, a document which is actually relevant for all nonprofit organizations. The document provides recommendations for developing policies and procedures to eliminate or reduce workplace violence. While no specific diagnosis or type of client or patient predicts future violence, research shows that nonprofits that serve large volumes of individuals in a healthcare or social services setting face the highest risks for workplace violence. So what can nonprofit leaders do to take precautions to prevent tragedies like the one we experienced last month in Yountville?
OSHA recommends that the first step is for the organization’s leadership to make a commitment to creating a workforce violence prevention program and for employees to become active participants. Organizations need a written violence prevention program with clear goals and objectives. Next, the organization employees should conduct a workplace analysis, involving a step-by-step assessment of the workplace to find existing or potential hazards that may lead to incidents of violence. After conducting the assessment, the organization leadership should take necessary steps to prevent or control any hazards identified by the employees.
Hazard prevention and control may take a variety of forms. OSHA suggests that the best way to eliminate a hazard is to remove it or substitute a safer work practice. Solutions may include engineering controls and workplace adaptations that either remove the hazard or put a barrier between the employee and hazard. Examples include installing physical barriers, door locks, panic buttons, paging systems, glass panels in doors and walls, curved mirrors, closed circuit video, improved lighting, metal detectors, and multiple accessible exits. Other options include arranging furniture so employees have a clear exit route; having secure restrooms and safe rooms for employees with locks on the inside; installing deep reception counters; locking all unused doors in accordance with fire codes; providing a comfortable waiting area to avoid stress; securing furniture or other items that could be used as weapons; and padding or replacing sharp-edged objects like metal table frames.
OSHA also recommends implementing administrative and workplace controls that affect the ways employees conduct their work. These practices are particularly helpful if implementing engineering controls isn’t feasible. These workplace controls include clearly stating to clients, employees and volunteers that violence is not permitted or tolerated; having specific log in and log out procedures, especially for employees and volunteers who visit client homes; tracking clients’ violent history, violent incidents, and triggering events in confidential client records; working with aggressive or agitated clients in open areas that still maintain client confidentiality; advising staff to exercise care in stairwells and elevators; limit staff from working alone; preparing contingency plans for clients who are acting out or making verbal threats; and requiring staff and volunteers to report all assaults or threats.
Other ways to safeguard employees and volunteers include providing identification badges without last names; discouraging them from wearing necklaces that can be used to create harm to the wearer; discouraging them from wearing expensive jewelry; letting them know how to call for help or medical assistance; and keeping desks and work areas free of items that can be used as weapons, such as extra pens and pencils and glass picture frames.
Education and training are important elements of any workplace safety program to help ensure that employees and volunteers are aware of potential hazards and how to protect themselves in an emergency. OSHA reports that all workers should understand the “universal precautions for violence,” meaning that violence should be expected and can be avoided or mitigated through preparation. Training should include topics such as the location and operation of safety features; how to document changes in client behavior; ways to recognize and prevent volatile situations; proper use of safe rooms; and self-defense procedures. And practice evacuation drills can help staff and volunteers know how to leave the building in case of any kind of emergency. It is also important to keep records of any work-related injuries and illnesses; medical reports of work injuries; incidents of abuse, verbal attacks or aggressive behavior; and information on clients with a history of past violence, drug abuse, or criminal activity.
A strong relationship with local law enforcement can help strengthen a nonprofit’s workplace violence prevention program. Sonoma’s Chief of Police Bret Sackett said, “The tragedy at The Pathway Home in Yountville serves as a stark reminder that workplace violence can happen anywhere. Preventing workplace violence is the responsibility of all of us. Leaders need to have clear policies about reporting threats and clear procedures about how to safeguard their staff and facilities.” Chief Sackett welcomed nonprofit leaders to contact the Sonoma Police Department or the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sonoma Valley Substation if they have any questions about preventing violence in their workplaces.
We learned last month that if we think we’re safe from workplace violence here in bucolic Wine Country, we’re fooling ourselves. It would be wise for nonprofit leaders to take the threat of the possibility of workplace violence seriously and take actions to safeguard against it.