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Recent Events Illustrate Need for Attention to Risks of Workplace Violence

Recent events, such as the shootings at a nursing home in North Carolina and an immigration center in New York, illustrate the need for employers to pay attention to the risks of workplace violence and take protective measures.  

According to the latest survey of fatal workplace injuries by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, assaults and other violent acts were the fourth leading cause of workplace fatalities, and workplace homicides amounted to approximately 10% of all workplace fatalities.  

Some types of workplaces are more likely than others to experience workplace violence.  The BLS survey indicates that workplace violence is most common at late-night retail establishments such as convenience stores, liquor stores and gas stations.  However, the recent shootings in North Carolina and New York and other shootings and hostage-takings show that all types of employers face some risk of  having an incident of workplace violence.   

Violence inflicted on employees at work can come from different sources, including customers, robbers, co-workers, and spouses or family members of co-workers.  While many acts of workplace violence appear to be random and unpredictable, some incidents may be anticipated and avoided.  In addition, an appropriate response to a potentially violent incident can keep it from resulting in violent injury or death.  

The Occupational Health & Safety Administration (“OSHA”) encourages employers to have a written policy and develop a program for workplace violence prevention.  A written policy should make it clear that physical violence, possession of weapons, verbal and non-verbal threats, and related conduct such as intimidation and abuse will not be tolerated.  The policy should also encourage prompt reporting of all violent or potentially violent incidents and assure employees that no reprisals will be taken against anyone who reports or experiences workplace violence.     

A workplace violence prevention program establishes a plan for maintaining security in the workplace and responding to violent incidents in cooperation with local law enforcement and EMS officials.  The program can include periodic training of employees in workplace violence prevention strategies.  In addition, an employer can choose to have a workplace analysis and risk assessment conducted by a security consultant to help the company identify any specific risks of workplace violence and take protective steps to control or reduce those risks.  Comprehensive pre-employment screening and effective procedures for resolving workplace disputes also can help lower the risk of workplace violence.  

The North Carolina Workplace Violence Prevention Act provides a procedure for an employer to obtain a “no-contact” order from a court to protect an employee from stalking, harassment or other threats to his or her personal safety by a spouse or family member or other person at the workplace.  Before an employer may seek a no-contact order, the Act requires the employer to consult the threatened employee and determine whether any safety concerns exist regarding his or her participation in the process of obtaining a no-contact order.  The Act prohibits the employer from taking any disciplinary action against the employee if he or she is unwilling to participate in the process.   

Other North Carolina statutes give a threatened employee the right to obtain a domestic violence protective order to prohibit a current or former spouse, or other person with whom the employee has or had a close personal relationship, from stalking or harassing the employee or threatening his or her personal safety at the employee’s home, workplace or any other location.  The Workplace Violence Prevention Act prohibits an employer from discharging, demoting, or disciplining an employee who takes time off to get a domestic violence protective order as long as the employee follows the employer’s usual time-off procedure.  

Apart from the Workplace Violence Prevention Act, an employer may be able to obtain a restraining order against someone who is threatening the company or its workforce if the person is known to pose a clear and imminent threat of coming on to company premises and damaging company property or causing physical injury to employees.  An employer who becomes aware of that sort of threat should also take immediate protective measures such as hiring security guards and contacting local law enforcement officials.  

Workplace violence can lead to poor employee morale, increased absenteeism, higher insurance premiums, and difficulty in recruiting and retaining employees.  Employers should be aware of the risks of workplace violence and take steps to reduce those risks.

© 2020 Poyner Spruill LLP. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume , Number 226



About this Author

David L. Woodard, Employment Litigation Attorney, Poyner Spruill, Law firm

David practices in the area of employment litigation.  He regularly advises and defends clients in race, age, disability and sex discrimination and harassment cases; reviews handbooks and termination issues; and provides compliance advice on matters of employment law.

Representative Experience

McNeil v. Scotland County - Obtained summary judgment for employer where plaintiff alleged race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as well as violation of the Americans...