Auditing Disaster Prevention

April 6, 2011
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

An auditing process can help employers use their corporate values to infuse respect, tolerance, and civility into employees’ behaviors and thus prevent workplace emergencies arising from violence.

Disaster preparedness often focuses our thinking and planning efforts on catastrophic events that involve multiple casualties and numerous sites and have a widespread impact. While it is essential for work organizations to prepare for these large-scale events, it is equally vital to plan and prepare for other types of disasters that can have a major impact on the workplace. In addition to the inherent damage they cause, these other types of disasters can contribute to the creation of workplace environments that make us more susceptible to the large-scale disasters we fear most.

In exploring the concept of preparedness, it is helpful to consider the impact of a disaster on a company, its employees, and its customers. These impacts can differ dramatically—what one company might consider a disastrous situation could actually be considered merely a nuisance by another. Indeed, limiting our focus to the concept of disaster preparedness may prove to be more confusing than enlightening. It may be helpful to broaden the topic and instead think in terms of emergency preparedness.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003), an emergency is “any unplanned event that can cause deaths or significant injuries to employees, customers, or the public; or that can shut down your business, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten the facility’s financial standing or public image.” We can apply this definition to natural disasters, accidents, emergencies caused by human error or omission, and crises caused by individual actions in the workplace. Such individual actions can include ongoing harassment, conflict, intimidation, incivility, disrespect, aggression, and even violence.

It is essential that employers plan and prepare for the kind of crises caused by individual actions in the workplace with the same gravity and determination given to large-scale disasters. This is especially true of violent actions. In the United States, an average of 33,000 workers are assaulted on the job every week (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health 2004), and workplace homicides ranked among the top three work-related fatal events in the years 1992-2003 (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004). A 2004 survey by the American Society of Safety Engineers found that the possibility of workplace violence is a substantial concern among respondents, but nearly three-quarters of them noted that their employers had not conducted a formal workplace violence risk assessment (Sullivan 2004).

Infusing Values
Prevention is the best strategy in planning for any emergency. Emergency operation plans often do not include preventative action requirements because prevention isn’t a measurable objective typically found in strategic plans. We can count the number of incidents, stress-related sick days, and dollars spent on recovery efforts; it is more difficult to count the number of incidents that did not occur or the number of dollars that were not spent due to solid prevention planning efforts.

Planning effective strategies to prevent, prepare for, and address incivility, aggression, and violence involves much more than creating a checklist of activities. Ideally, such planning includes infusing values into a workplace culture to help develop and maintain a productive, positive environment. Infusing values is not an easy task—there is no single factor that can be added to a workplace to make it immune to conflict or crisis. While a company’s values, mission, and policies can provide a roadmap to creating a desired workplace atmosphere, these important elements can be lost or become meaningless without a structural application.

An audit tool that provides baseline information through an initial assessment and tracks progress over time can best support values-based emergency prevention efforts. Utilizing the categories of respect, service, and safety, an audit can help companies organize their policies to promote values and clarify expectations for all employees. Promoting a workplace culture that clearly conveys expectations relating to respectful interactions, quality service, and safety can create a “shield” to prevent emergency situations that arise from incivility, aggression, and violence.

Translating values into behaviors requires that employers promote respect, service, and safety at all levels of the work organization. Over time, employers will begin to see the results of this process in their productivity levels and overall “bottom line.” An audit tool can aid in establishing the baseline information for this effort and provide a gauge to measure improvements.

In addition to supporting emergency prevention efforts, an audit or assessment tool should become part of an established risk management protocol. A comprehensive workplace assessment ideally involves the following:

  • An analysis of risk hazards;
  • A review of records and documentation;
  • A review of past incidents;
  • A site-specific security analysis; and
  • Periodic safety audits.

The last component is critical given that 95 percent of business executives report that workplace safety has a positive impact on a company’s financial performance. Even more critical, 61 percent believe their companies receive a return on investment of $3 or more for each $1 they invest in improving workplace safety (Liberty Mutual 2001).

Professionalism and Confidence
An organization’s mission and values should provide the foundation on which audits of workplace issues are continually assessed. An audit tool can build on this foundation and help raise awareness among employees of issues and concerns affecting the workplace. It also can be used to formally assess whether employees have the skills and training to maintain their professionalism when dealing with difficult customers or co-workers and the confidence to prevent aggressive behavior from escalating and perhaps leading to violence.

Professionalism and confidence are important factors in reducing the likelihood that critical incidents involving incivility, aggression, or violence will occur. Additional elements include the ability of management and staff to communicate with co-workers and customers in a courteous and respectful manner and work together to resolve any conflicts that might arise. Helping employees understand how their behavior can have a positive or negative impact on someone else’s behavior is another part of the equation.

The information provided through an audit process will not automatically transfer to new employees’ behavior. Encouraging employee development through skills training and competency assessment is the vehicle that moves the value system into practical application. Effective training can shift values within companies and transform an organization’s culture, given the proper amount of support by employees at all levels.

Any employee development in this area needs to be viewed as an ongoing process and not a “quick fix.” An audit tool provides a baseline and also may be used for ongoing analysis. This analysis can guide a training process that has meaning to employees given their individual responsibilities and their understanding of behavioral expectations and company values.

The Role of EAPs
There is no single, simple formula for preventing workplace incivility, aggression, and violence. When these behaviors cannot be prevented, it is important that any intervention methods used be consistent with the employer’s value system. Proper intervention methods are an important element of the ongoing training process. Evaluating these methods is a step that should be incorporated into any auditing process.

Employee assistance professionals are a vital resource in both the prevention of, and response to, workplace emergencies involving harassment, conflict, intimidation, incivility, disrespect, aggression, or violence. While EAPs are perhaps best known for providing debriefing services, short-term counseling, follow-up referral, consultation, and additional training, they also can play vital roles in promoting respectful values and behaviors in the workplace.

More Resources:

EAPs should work with human resources, risk management, and corporate safety professionals to develop values-based audit processes that help improve employers’ proficiency in preventing and addressing workplace emergencies. The audit results can assist in implementing training programs that infuse these values into workplace culture and promote the teaching of skills to help workers at all levels prevent and respond to emergencies.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2004. National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2003. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. 2003. Emergency Management Guide for Business and Industry. Washington, D.C.: Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. 2001. Executive Survey of Workplace Safety. Boston, Mass.: Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 2004. Violence on the Job. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 1998. Recommendations for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs for Late-Night Retail Establishments. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.

Sullivan, JoAnn M. 2004. 2004 Workplace Violence Survey and White Paper. RM Insight 3(3): 1-11.

Reprint with permission of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, Inc. All rights reserved. ©2005 Employee Assistance Professionals Association, Inc.

This article first appeared in the Journal of Employee Assistance, The magazine of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, Volume. 35 No. 2, 2nd Quarter 2005

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