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Feb. 23, 2012

Avoiding Workplace Violence: What Property Managers Need to Know

By Joe Rosner, Contributor

Joe Rosner

The recent sexual assault of a Texas property manager serves as a tragic reminder of the potential for crime and violence inherent in working with the public. However, hardened criminals are just one potential source of trouble.  Tenants, visitors, co-workers, vendors and spillovers from domestic violence are also areas of risk.

While clear statistics may be hard to come by, the danger is clear. A quick web search will easily bring up recent crimes against managers, maintenance workers and rental agents, ranging from threats to robberies and even rapes. Workplace Violence (WPV) is the fourth-leading cause of death at work overall, and it is the number one cause for women. In an average year, there are more than two million violent acts and 550 murders on the job. But what does it matter if the odds are 1 in 10 million or 1 in 10 if that “1” is someone you know?

There is no specific federal regulation requiring employers to keep employees safe from violence, but OSHA can and does impose penalties based on the “General Duty Clause,” which requires a worksite free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm, including violence. The impact of WPV includes lawsuits (settlements average $300K; jury awards $3 million), higher employee turnover and increased insurance premiums.

A written policy, supported by caring, involved management can prevent violence. Violence does not offer advance warning the way weather events do. Putting plans, policies and procedures in place to prevent violence and reduce harm makes good business sense. More than that, making sure your team goes home safe every day should always be one of leadership’s top priorities.

A workplace violence policy should include screening potential tenants, vendors and employees for past criminal offenses.  Six-hundred-thousand inmates are released from prison every year,and while not all are dangerous, the cost of a professional background check is a cheap investment if it means preventing a resident or employee from being assaulted. David Margolies of Tenant Approve, a nationwide tenant screen, tells of a property manager in Los Angeles who noticed that an applicant’s prior addresses did not seem to add up. Tenant Approve investigated only to discover the potential renter was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List—not the sort of celebrity most landlords are seeking.

OSHA guidelines mandate training based on the concept of “Universal Precautions for Violence,” the premise of which is that violence should be expected, but can also be avoided or mitigated through proper preparation. Employees should receive regular training on:

  • Early recognition of escalating behavior or warning signs
  • Ways to prevent volatile situations
  • Responding to violent situations

Training programs should involve all employees, including supervisors and managers. Failure to include appropriate safety training when adopting new violence policies may actually increase the risks such policies were intended to address.

When facing an unexpected emergency, especially a violent confrontation, most people will either freeze, do nothing or take the wrong course of action. “Freezing” is caused by panic, a condition manifested by an inability to remember what to do. This may further manifest as “choking”, an inability to select from a number of possible actions. A few people are fortunate to have the natural ability to remain levelheaded and make good decisions under sudden, high-stress situations, but virtually everyone will make better and faster decisions as a result of forethought and training. Ask Captain Sully Sullenberger, the commercial pilot who made an emergency water-landing on the Hudson with zero loss of life.  It was his training and forethought, not his gut instincts or natural ability, that saved the day.

Opportunity, ability and intent are all required conditions for violence to take place. Effective personal safety training should include strategies, tactics and techniques to eliminate the danger of violence by controlling one or more of the conditions mentioned above. Methods such as defusing skills, verbal control tactics, use of barriers, distress signals (including coded distress signals) and simple, reliable self defense can all be effective and should be thoroughly taught by a qualified instructor.

Joe Rosner is an author, speaker and trainer based near Chicago. After the attacks of 9/11, he began using his military, law enforcement and martial arts expertise to teach people to be safer and live with less worry-related stress.

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