Workplace Violence

Rx for Violence

As violence in health care settings increases, awareness and de-escalation training for workers can go a long way toward preventing crises.  
By: | October 15, 2015 • 12 min read

Law enforcement responded to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston on Jan. 20, 2015, where a cardiologist was killed.


Dr. Jeffrey Ho treats patients in a busy Level 1 trauma center at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, and he teaches emergency medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He’s also a sworn deputy sheriff in neighboring Meeker County.

The combination of medical practice and law enforcement is not the contradiction it might seem.

It led to his belief that the most effective strategy for preventing violence was not necessarily more deterrence in the form of weapons and armed security, but more and better training in violence recognition and pre-emption for people who dedicate themselves to the helping professions: doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators and therapists, as well as support staff such as receptionists and maintenance crews.

Health care workers are injured through violent acts at more than four times the national rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. FBI statistics show the incidence of active shooter incidents in health care settings rose from 6.4 per year between 2000 and 2006, to 16.4 per year between 2007 and 2013.

Those numbers are a gross underestimate, Ho said, because the health care culture doesn’t yet take assaults seriously, other than the deadly ones. OSHA doesn’t break out violence in its statistics on injuries to workers, although it breaks out other sources of injury. And workers themselves don’t consider minor incidents worth reporting.

When he consults with other hospitals on beefing up security — another of his jobs, along with his role as medical director for TASER International — Ho asks caregivers, “Has a patient ever threatened you or has anybody ever touched you?”

“Every hand goes up,” he said. Then he asks how many times they’ve reported it. “Nobody raises a hand,” he said.

A Big Problem, But How Big?

When an accurate registry of incidents exposes the pervasiveness and severity of the problem, Ho said, hospital administrations, the insurance industry, the government and general public will be shocked into corrective action.

Dr. Jeffrey Ho, Hennepin County Medical Center

Dr. Jeffrey Ho, Hennepin County Medical Center

However, obstacles to accurate reporting are nearly as pervasive as the violence itself.

The main reason violent incidents are under-reported, said Barry Weiner, managing director, health care practice leader, Aon, is that there is no mandate for facilities to report all events.

For those that report anyway, there is no universal definition of a reportable (or recordable) injury, said Jane Lipscomb, professor at the University of Maryland Schools of Nursing and Medicine, and author of “Not Part of the Job: How to Take a Stand Against Violence in the Work Setting.”

OSHA has one set of requirements, workers’ compensation carriers may have another and facilities may have their own.

“What’s an ‘event’?” asked Weiner. “Every emergency department sees a half-dozen on a good night, but won’t report all of them. Where is the threshold for reportable incidents?”

“We had to get staff to understand that behaviors that would be criminal in other settings are not OK just because they happen in a hospital.” — Dr. Jeffrey Ho, Hennepin County Medical Center

Many victims, particularly nurses, don’t report staff-on-staff incidents for fear of retaliation, said Lori Severson, health care loss control consultant, Lockton Cos.

An Institute for Safe Medication Practices study finds a virtual epidemic of violence, intimidation and passive aggression by health care workers, who may be stressed out by accountability for life-and-death procedures.

A dysfunctional team, said Lipscomb, is more apt to make errors, which may expose the organization to litigation. “Increasingly, organizations recognize that staff safety and patient safety are closely linked.”

Obstacles to Reporting

Electronic medical records, mandated by the Affordable Care Act for patient records, may contribute to the problem, said Weiner, as hospitals may have a disincentive to record incidents.

“Discoverability can be an issue,” he said. “An electronic record is permanent and discoverable. Both sides can use it in a courtroom.”


Not infrequently, Severson said, a repeat offender cycles through a facility again and again. “Health care workers may then feel workplace violence reporting isn’t a solution but an empty motion. Why report the same person multiple times?” she asked.

Veterans Affairs facilities electronically flag the file of patients who have acted out violently against staff in the past two years, and security personnel escort them whenever they’re in a facility for treatment, according to published reports.

The financial ramifications of violence combined with the need to protect employees create an urgent problem. A broker’s role, said Weiner, is to work with clients to scope out the problem.

“Some of the solution lives with us. We deliver training, promote best practices and engage leadership in meaningful discussion about reducing violence.”

Responsibility for the so-far nonexistent registry of assaults, Ho said, doesn’t belong with a government agency, but with a professional risk association.

The American Society for Healthcare Risk Management was unavailable for comment.

But a professional association faces the same obstacles as OSHA, the Department of Labor, the Crime Victimization Survey and the “other organizations out there trying to make good estimates,” said Lipscomb. “Staff don’t report if they work in an environment where they think violence is part of their job, where reporting is risky, and where it won’t produce results anyway.”

Disrupting the vicious cycle of under-reporting and perpetuation of violence, Lipscomb said, usually depends on a facility’s enlightened leadership, without whose commitment of time, resources and adequate staffing to meet patients’ needs, culture change is “nearly impossible.”

The organizations she visited to identify best practices, she said, have many things in common, such as morning huddles every day, when CEOs and unit heads get together to talk about what happened in last 24 hours. “They ask, ‘What do we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ ”

“Staff don’t report if they work in an environment where they think violence is part of their job, where reporting is risky, and where it won’t produce results anyway.” — Jane Lipscomb, professor, University of Maryland Schools of Nursing and Medicine

This is already common practice with patient care. Taking their cue from aviation and other safety-essential industries, they have adopted a culture where errors and near misses are considered opportunities to improve the facility’s practice.

“That’s how you get people to report,” Lipscomb said. “Then you can do something about the problem.”

Changing Behaviors

Ho’s facility has done “a good job” controlling violence, thanks to senior management’s follow-up on recommendations from a violence prevention task force formed in 2007. The task force’s recommendations start with a carrot (de-escalation) and end with a stick (force). The longest journey, he said, was training staff members to consider their own safety.

Having been taught for years that verbal abuse and getting punched in the face by a distraught patient or family member is simply an occupational hazard, the forgivable by-product of grief or pain, “we had to get staff to understand that behaviors that would be criminal in other settings are not OK just because they happen in a hospital.”

In fact, several states have passed legislation making any attack on a health care worker a felony. Although there is no federal standard for workplace violence protections, according to the American Nurses Association, some states require employer-run workplace violence programs. Washington is the only state to require reporting of incidents.

Among the Hennepin County Medical Center task force’s recommendations: Signage around the facility stating appropriate behavior.


The Joint Commission, a national certifying organization, now requires its accredited hospitals to have a code of conduct that identifies appropriate behaviors and how inappropriate behavior should be managed.

Training helps staff recognize risks, such as frustration with long ER wait times, intoxication and drug-seeking behavior, according to experts.

It teaches empathetic listening, the most basic de-escalation technique, which means the distraught person has no need to act out in violent ways to be heard, said Elizabeth Moreland, senior risk engineering consultant, Zurich Insurance.

Emergency rooms and mental health settings are particularly high-risk areas, experts said, but “everyone who has patient contact should get basic crisis prevention awareness training,” said Moreland.

Some organizations, such as the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), provide training specific to health care facilities. Typically, a facility sends one or two staff members for training, and they return to spread the gospel.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some trade associations offer free programs and best practices to help manage health care violence.

Training typically includes rehearsing non-judgmental and non-provocative responses to a distraught person’s demands. Body language can also diffuse emotions, Moreland said. For example, standing to a person’s side is a less confrontational posture than standing nose to nose.

For most people, these techniques require practice, she said. “In-service role-playing is very effective. Don’t depend on once-a-year training sessions.”

People, Not Livestock

Batsheva Katz, vice president of Windsor Healthcare Communities, which runs elder care, skilled nursing and rehabilitation facilities in New Jersey, takes pains to provide “a happy environment” as the most effective prevention against violence.

Biting, hitting, pushing and scratching are typical assaults in residential facilities, where emotions run high among residents and their families as they face the fear of mortality and the discomforts and humiliations of aging.

“Happiness” in those circumstances is a systematic, top-down effort to treat residents “as someone’s mother or father,” rather than as bodies that need to be fed and washed, Katz said.

“That means talking to them if they want to talk, addressing them by name, knowing their tastes and preferences.” It also means teaching care partners to approach residents slowly and speak softly but audibly. Care partners explain what they’re doing, such as, “I’m going to put your socks on now.”

This is a human resources issue, Katz said, requiring adequate staff, time, training and a concerted search for applicants with the friendly, caring personalities that are crucial, but harder to find than résumés boasting relevant but teachable skills.

The practice pays off in “extremely favorable” workers’ compensation premiums, virtually no claims related to violence and very high employee retention, said Ettie Schoor, president, Prism Consultants, Windsor’s hands-on insurance broker.

When new residents are admitted, Windsor’s interdisciplinary care partners and administration undertake a “72-hour meeting” with them and their families to get to know the resident’s tastes, personality, triggers and risk factors, such as dementia or a tendency to wander; if residents wander, their care partners wander with them and bring them back gently, Katz said, to avoid power struggles. Windsor matches residents with care partners they like and trust.

For example, said Katz, staff members noticed one resident’s combativeness eased on weekends, when he had a male certified nursing assistant (CNA). “All he wanted was a male CNA,” said Schoor.

Kendra L. Stea, director of client services, CPI, urges facilities to reconsider inflexible rules, policies and protocols that produce power struggles between patients and staff, which can escalate into violence.

A psychiatric patient’s request for a glass of milk at night led to “a really ugly outcome,” she wrote in a CPI blog, when a caregiver refused, saying it would lead to a stampede of midnight demands for milk.

“We have to be creative and flexible in deciding which of our rules are negotiable, and which are non-negotiable,” she wrote.

Securing the Plant

Ryan Clarke, director of security and transport, Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nev., agreed that education and awareness are the best tools against violence.

After a shooter killed a doctor and wounded two others before killing himself in 2013 at the center, Clarke’s facility introduced more comprehensive staff-wide de-escalation training for handling people who are verbally or physically out of control. And it added armed security guards to its team, mostly as a deterrent to future attacks but also to add a greater level of response.

Much of its re-evaluation of the physical plant’s security addressed access control: Who needs to be where? Who’s coming into the ER? Armed security guards and volunteers, who are trained to perform a visual risk evaluation, greet people as they pass through a door.

“We put access control at main and intermediate doors inside the ER so if we need to lock down an area, we can,” Clarke said.

“If we suspect a visitor problem, we can lock the lobby off from the patient area until we can ensure that it’s safe.”

Clarke looks at furniture. Can it be broken up and weaponized? He also looks at layout. Is there enough space to separate people with a history of hostilities, maybe gang members or fighting domestic partners, who may meet again in the ER?

“In a good layout,” he said, “visitors see a staff member or security officer as soon as they enter. In a poor layout, the entrance is isolated, and nobody is there to identify potential threats.”

Some experts challenge the efficacy of color-coded alert systems — such as Code Gray for personal threat — as unintelligible and unhelpful to non-staff. Emergency codes are not standardized by any state or agency.

After the tragic 2015 shooting at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston that left a cardiologist and the shooter dead, police were on the scene within seconds, the 5 million-square-foot facility was cleared within 16 minutes and the violence was contained to the exam room.


That faint silver lining was due, in part, to a 39-word plain-English scripted announcement that identified and located the incident and explained what to do.

An announcement “needs to be plain English so untrained visitors, patients, anybody who is in the building, can hear it and know what’s happening,” Robert Chicarello, director of security at BWH, told “Boston Magazine.”

Pamela Popp, executive vice president and chief risk officer, Western Litigation, recommended that health care facilities cultivate relationships with law enforcement.

Facilities that can’t hire security staff may offer free food or cafeteria discounts to local police, whose presence serves as a visual deterrent.

Ho agreed, with qualifications. Does the cop understand how to work in health care settings? In case there’s a pursuit inside the hospital, is the sterilization area locked? Are there flammable gasses?

“A firearm or Taser is dangerous in those environments,” he said.

A security solution that’s appropriate for one facility won’t necessarily work in another because of endless variables: differences in the community, the layout, the size of the hospital and risk factors in the community.

Study and adapt best practices, advised Clarke.

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Employment Practices


Sexual harassment is a growing concern for corporate America. Risk managers can pave the way to top-down culture change.
By: | March 5, 2018 • 12 min read

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements opened up Pandora’s Box, launching countless public scandals and accusations. The stories that continue to emerge paint an unflattering picture of corporate America and the culture of sexual harassment that has permeated it for decades.


“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it,” reads the official tagline of Time’s Up, one of the most vocal groups demanding change.

The GoFundMe campaign that supports the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund raised more than $16.7 million in less than a month, making it the most successful GoFundMe initiative on record.

Funds will be used to help victims of sexual harassment and assault bring legal action against harassers, as well as provide public relations consultation to manage any media attention such suits might attract.

The problem was never really a secret.

In surveys conducted since 1980 by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 40 percent of women and 15 percent of men consistently reported being sexually harassed at work.

In a sweeping meta-analysis of 25 years’ worth of research data, published in “Personnel Psychology,” an average of 25 percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. When respondents were given clear definitions of harassing behavior, that figure shot up to 60 percent.

The current climate is just now pushing awareness to the forefront. It was reported last November that law firms in the nation’s capital are seeing a spike in inquiries about sexual harassment cases.

Laura Coppola, regional head of commercial management liability in North America, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

In addition, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website is seeing visits to its harassment web page double.

There’s no question the costs to businesses can be staggering. Twenty-First Century Fox reportedly incurred $50 million in costs tied to the settlement of sexual harassment and discrimination allegations in its Fox News division, as well as a $90 million settlement of shareholder claims arising from sexual harassment scandals.

In June, the company disclosed in a regulatory filing that it had $224 million in costs during the fiscal year related to “management and employee transitions and restructuring” at business units, including the group that houses Fox News.

If time is indeed up, it won’t just impact Hollywood, Silicon Valley or Capitol Hill. It will impact every workplace, in every industry.

“It affects everybody,” said Marie-France Gelot, senior vice president and insurance & claims counsel for Lockton’s Northeast Claims Advisory Group.

“I think anybody in corporate America — at some point — has seen it or been aware of it or been around it.”

“This particular phenomenon is certainly at a much wider scope than we’ve seen in the last decade or so,” said Laura Coppola, regional head of commercial management liability in North America, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty.

“This is going to touch many industries, many segments, and many people.”

Employers are beginning to wonder if their workplace could be next.

“I think if you’d been asking [insureds] a year ago, ‘Are you interested in hearing about sexual harassment prevention?’ I think the answer would have been, ‘No, we’re good, we’ve got it,’ ” said Bob Graham, vice president, HUB International Limited.

“But I think now everyone’s saying ‘Sure, yes, we’d like to hear something.’ ”

Leading the Conversation

As American workplaces come under increasing scrutiny, the time is ripe for a large-scale pivot in the way employers manage risks related to sexual harassment.

The co-chairs of the EEOC’s select task force on the study of harassment in the workplace expressed it aptly in 2016:

“With legal liability long ago established, with reputational harm from harassment well known, with an entire cottage industry of workplace compliance and training adopted and encouraged for 30 years, why does so much harassment persist and take place in so many of our workplaces? And, most important of all, what can be done to prevent it? After 30 years — is there something we’ve been missing?”

Experts in the management liability field unanimously told Risk & Insurance® these issues should be elevated to the board level and the C-suite.

“Just as cyber liability shifted rapidly from an IT discussion to a board level discussion, so too will the harassment and discrimination discussion go beyond HR and be elevated to the highest levels,” said Coppola. It will become a corporate-wide, enterprise-wide conversation.

“It’s going to take some time to get to that board level, but it’s going to have to happen,” said Paul King, national practice leader, management and professional services, USI Insurance Services.

“Risk management and HR cannot go down parallel paths, not understanding one another. Not anymore. There’s too much at stake.” — Paul King, national practice leader, management and professional services, USI Insurance Services

Risk managers, said Kelly Thoerig, U.S. employment practices liability coverage leader, Marsh, are well suited to lead this conversation, which means actively partnering with human resources, the legal department, the general counsel’s office and outside counsel.


“Just like the quarterback depends on the offensive line, on receivers, on the running backs, it’s not a one-man show,” said King. “This can’t be the risk manager operating in a vacuum; they have to be liaising with multiple parts of the organization.”

Added King, “Risk management and HR cannot go down parallel paths, not understanding one another. Not anymore. There’s too much at stake.”

Connecting with outside counsel can also be of great benefit to risk managers, said Coppola.

“[They can] provide a very independent objective view of what they see in the overall market and how their knowledge of the individual client’s best practices can be improved and enhanced to ensure that they are protecting employees and the organization.”

Brokers and carriers also may be able to offer insights and services. Unfortunately, that piece is often lost because risk management and HR are siloed.

“The [knowledge of the] services that come with the insurance policy end up with the policy — in a drawer in the risk manager’s office,” said Tom Hams, employment practice liability insurance leader, Aon.

“HR doesn’t know that they exist. Even if they’re just online blogs or something like that, they could be more meaningful to the HR department than they are to risk management.

“So it’s important to make sure that companies are aware they’ve got those tools and — more importantly — to share them internally.”

Expediting Cultural Change

The X factor that underpins every aspect of these efforts is culture, experts agreed.

“It’s not so much ‘does the company have best-in-class policies and procedures in place;’ I think many of them do. I think that a significant change needed is doing a full overhaul of corporate culture, and that’s no small feat,” said Gelot.

Paul King, national practice leader, management and professional services, USI Insurance Services

True culture change can only come from the top level. But that isn’t likely to happen unless everyone at the top understands what the scope of the exposure could be if it’s not addressed appropriately on the front end. And for that, money talks, said Thoerig, who will be presenting on the topic at RIMS 2018 in San Antonio.

“Nothing is more instructive than real tangible claims examples and settlement amounts. Arm yourself with … recent, relevant claims examples specific to the industry and the jurisdictions the company operates in.”

In addition, said King, HR and legal should be regularly feeding claims information to risk managers to share at quarterly meetings of the board and give specific updates around these issues.

Armed with that level of intelligence, top brass can set the goals that will drive all anti-harassment efforts, said experts, putting an emphasis on identifying and correcting behavior that could potentially expose a company to liability.

Better Training and Reporting 

The best anti-harassment programs are multilayered, said Hams, with each facet carefully tailored to suit the employee population, the industry and the organization’s goals. A clearly defined policy is essential, stating that harassment will not be tolerated and neither will retaliation against those who report it.

The policy should be clear that employees are expected to report harassment or unacceptable behavior. Hams said he’s seen companies go so far as to state employees who don’t speak up are in violation of the policy.

“At least it should give them pause to stop and think about what they might have seen before they click the button or sign the document,” he said.

Companies should consider how uncomfortable employees may be about speaking up. An open-door policy is a start.

But there should also be multiple reporting points throughout the organization, said Hams, and an anonymous hotline for those reluctant to bring the matter up with anyone in their chain of command, and a multilingual hotline as well.

An effective training plan will have multiple moving parts and should touch every level of the organization from the executive suite to managers and supervisors to the rank and file. Comprehensive training is especially critical for the managers and supervisors who might receive or investigate complaints.

Many large employers already have training programs that can be considered best-in-class. Small to midsized employers, however, may still be using the cookie-cutter compliance-centric training that has dominated the field for decades.

The goal of this training is to hit all the bases related to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, ticking off a list of acts or speech that would be considered illegal and affirming the company will not tolerate illegal behavior.

Overwhelmingly though, this type of training misses the mark. Studies have shown that this one-size-fits-all training is ineffective, especially when it’s a rote check-the-box exercise. Employees get the message their employer doesn’t take the subject too seriously.

Worse, it can even aggravate tensions, creating more discriminatory behavior from men who avoid working with women just to eliminate the chance of being accused of anything.

One study even found that men were more likely to place blame on the victim of sexual abuse after they’d received that type of anti-harassment training.

Even at best, compliance-centric training will still fail, because it only addresses behaviors that violate the law. But there is a broad array of behavior that — while not quite illegal — shouldn’t be tolerated.

When this kind of activity is allowed to flourish unchecked, the environment becomes increasingly toxic for those on the receiving end. It also tells employees that the company will tolerate harassment as long as it’s not overly egregious. In that case, it’s just a matter of time before the company is faced with a serious claim.

“Nothing is more instructive than real tangible claims examples and settlement amounts. Arm yourself with … recent, relevant claims examples specific to the industry and the jurisdictions the company operates in.” — Kelly Thoerig, U.S. employment practices liability coverage leader, Marsh

In its 2016 report, the EEOC’s harassment task force recommended changing tactics, exploring alternative training models such as respect-based civility training — what some call professionalism training.


The theory is “if you train them to act in a professional manner, these things tend not to happen at all,” said Hams.

The EEOC also suggested bystander intervention training, which is designed to empower employees to intervene when they witness harassing behavior.

Experts agreed whatever training programs or modules a company chooses, it’s important the training material reflect the workforce and be continuous and regularly refreshed.

A certification scheme also should be put in place to ensure the training is hitting the mark. While the law does not yet require companies to prove the effectiveness of their programs, some suggest it’s only a matter of time before the courts catch up to the problem.

What’s more, said Coppola, it’s simply the right thing to do for companies that want to confirm they’ve created a culture where all employees can expect to be treated professionally.

Zero Tolerance

Gelot and others believe a zero-tolerance policy should be a key component of an effective anti-harassment program.

“There are many companies that have Harvey Weinsteins and Matt Lauers and Kevin Spaceys working in their midst and those people are tolerated. Employees know about them — it’s not a secret.”

Bob Graham, vice president, HUB International Limited

Particularly when the harasser is a high-level executive, companies may wrestle with the decision to look the other way or lose a key rainmaker. In a zero-tolerance environment — one that starts at the top — the decision would be clear.

“What we saw with Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose — they were terminated immediately as the accusations came out. That’s zero tolerance. That’s sending a message to all of the employees within the company that this is completely unacceptable, we won’t tolerate it, and [it] clearly sends a message to the public at large.”

Employers should promote a workplace culture where all forms of harassment and discrimination are unacceptable and reportable, said Gelot. That’s the only way to take the fear and the stigma out of reporting.

That said, the EEOC offers a word of caution on zero-tolerance policies applied militantly without regard for common sense. Employers should hash out the specifics of which acts merit immediate termination versus a warning.

Overzealous application of the zero-tolerance doctrine can backfire if an employee fears her coworker’s children will go hungry if she reports his lewd or sexist jokes.

Creating a Dialogue

As with managing any other exposure that touches everyone, robust sharing of ideas and best practices has the power to improve the risk profile of entire industry sectors.

Facebook raised eyebrows in December, making public its sexual harassment policy in full.

“I hope in sharing it we will start a discussion, both to help smaller companies thinking about this for the first time, and to improve our own practices by learning from other companies,” wrote Lori Goler, Facebook’s global VP of people, about the company’s bold move.


That level of disclosure is making some risk professionals uncomfortable. But others acknowledge the wisdom of it.

“Any time you can share best practices that’s probably a great idea, because no one has all the answers … or at least not all the right answers,” said Graham.

“There’s a reason they did that, and I think it’s for all the right, positive reasons. They want to drive the momentum that is going to reduce or even eliminate what we have seen in corporate America over the last 50-plus years. They want to lead by example, they want to be the model and rightly so,” added Coppola.

“I think we are at a perfect time in our economic environment that allows the evolution of equality in our workplace.”

Part of that should involve making the workplace more egalitarian, said Gelot, and figuring out “how to make female employees not feel ostracized by a ‘boys’ club’ atmosphere, and actively championing the ascension of women into senior rolls.”

“We can’t focus on the past,” said Coppola. “But we can work very hard collectively as a community, and within the insurance industry specifically, to move forward.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]