What Does an Employer’s ‘Obligation to Provide a Safe Work Environment’ Really Mean?

What Does an Employer’s ‘Obligation to Provide a Safe Work Environment’ Really Mean?

safe-work-environmentWorkplace violence is a rising worry among employers and employees alike. It’s common enough that OSHA estimates that two million Americans will see some form of workplace violence on a yearly basis. The moral obligation to keep your employees safe needs no discussion, but the legal basis can be confusing. How do you know you’ve met the legal standards of a ‘safe work environment?’

Safety First

Part of the issue is that those obligations have no clear definition. The only real clarity comes from fines issued by the government, and those fines can be inconsistent depending on the incident and the issue; one occasion might be left to the company to resolve, while another may have them step in. It also depends heavily on your industry. If you run a landscaping business, you’re less likely to run into workplace violence than at, say, a boxing gym, so you may need to implement different safeguards and different policies on that basis.

The best place to start is with state laws, which generally offer a more detailed set of guidelines. Research what your state requires for workplace violence and workplace safety, and write out a workplace violence policy that fits those requirements and your business. Make reporting and investigation key to that policy; as always with legal issues, it’s important to document everything before you act. Similarly, work out a policy to arbitrate employee disputes, which can cool off problems before they boil over, and have policies in place to both sanction any employee who loses their temper and care for the employee potentially injured.

Safety Second

Beyond that, it’s important to find employees who can function with others. The screening process during hiring is a good start; you’ll be able to find arrest records, check references, and turn up information about how your potential employee deals with conflict in the workplace.

Again, though, be aware of your legal obligations to the applicant. Some states forbid using background check data to remove an applicant from the hiring process unless it’s directly relevant to the job, while others will only allow you to do so if you can prove it would put your other employees at risk. Similarly, former employers may find themselves subject to a slander suit unless they can prove their statements as completely true. Still, between references and a background check, you should be able to get a sense of how an applicant handles conflict and disagreement in the workplace.

Finally, you’ll need to remember there are issues you simply can’t anticipate unless the employee comes to you. For example, survivors of domestic violence are at more risk of workplace violence because their abuser may learn where they work. So make a point to have an open door and an open mind; if employees can come to you with concerns, you’ll be better able to protect them at work.

Safety Always

Short of building a fortress, we can’t anticipate every possible workplace issue. But with careful background checks, smart policies, and open minds, we can keep our employees safe.

Want to take steps to protect your employees? Contact us and we’ll help you build a better, safer workplace.