FM Frequency: Warning Signs

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By Charles C. Carpenter, CFM
From the May 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

When discussing safety in the workplace, people often focus on the term “workplace violence” solely. While this is a topic that every facility manager (fm) should care about, ignoring the related concept of “workplace hostility” can leave a facility at risk and jeopardize safety.

What constitutes a violent act is easy to agree upon, right? Identifying a hostile act might not be so easy. Faking a punch might be interpreted as a prank. An off color joke, slamming a door, or calling someone a name might not seem hostile—until these provoke a violent response.

While “going postal” is a popular term, the occupations most at-risk—outside of protective services—are retail clerks and taxi drivers. As fms know, this does not mean the average facility is immune. The good news is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides a wealth of information on workplace injuries and fatalities, reports trends that point to a safer workplace.

Workplace hostility can be broken into four categories: criminal, customer, coworker, and domestic. Criminal needs little explanation. Meanwhile, customer initiated hostility is quite common, with health workers experiencing the greatest number of workplace assaults. Hostile actions by coworkers are one of the harder areas to predict but are often publicized when they do. Finally, hostility that occurs in facilities as a result of domestic disputes may be underestimated; however, the workplace is one of the few sites that an abuser can count on finding their victim.

Volumes have been written on the topic of workplace hostility and violence, but it can be tough to determine what constitutes a hostile act, as the definition is always changing. This is further complicated by companies that churn out managers based on technical, as opposed to supervisory, skills who do not recognize the need to document and report workplace safety issues. Given space constraints, this column focuses on several examples that may enable fms to improve their overall security.

One tool to raise awareness of criminal and customer initiated hostility relates to facility security. Card access systems are the most common line of defense against unwelcome activity, securing doors against outsiders and prohibiting specific employees from secured areas or entering during off-hours. These systems also provide a record of activity. Still, fms should recognize that for even the best access system there are challenges, and following are a few examples.

Organizations with card access systems often place their logos on employee badges. These badges could become unclipped from the wearer on a crowded subway or other populated setting. If the employee waits until the next day (or after the weekend) to report a missing badge (if he or she even notices it is missing), the perpetrator gains time to abuse it. One consideration is to remove organization specific information from access badges and lanyards, replacing it with markings that do not enable an unauthorized person to figure out where it comes from.

For unmonitored facilities, fms may want to consider a secondary authentication, such as a PIN number, outside of normal operating hours. While this may be inconvenient to workers on the graveyard shift, it makes it much more difficult for an unauthorized person to enter.

Card access systems become useless when someone holds the door for those entering behind them, which many instinctively do. Even those who look for a badge before holding the door are doing a disservice, since they have no way of knowing if the badge is authentic. To make matters worse, badge readers may not emit a different sound when a badge does not work, which enables a person to swipe their useless badge in front of even the strictest of door holders. The ways to combat this issue is to instruct people not to hold doors open, use anti-passback settings, or install sophisticated entry systems.

While access systems record failures and alarms, how many organizations actively investigate these incidents? An alarm could be the result of an honest mistake by an employee or a phishing expedition by someone uncouth. Fms should consider using an access system’s ability to send e-mail alerts for alarms (including camera footage) and scrutinizing off-hour occurrences. You might find that someone is looking to infiltrate your facility.

Outside a facility, security can also be compromised by a commonplace practice—using a business card as a luggage identifier. While expedient to the employee linked to the card, this practice could be inconvenient for their organization. Even if someone does not steal a bag, they may take valuable information. One company recently found that over $1 million worth of drugs had been sent using its legitimate account number (note: always review shipping invoices). When it comes to luggage, like access cards it’s best to leave an organization’s name out of it.

In regards to coworker hostility, background checks are commonplace for employees, and that’s one line of defense. But what about contractors? It is good policy to require background checks of anyone who is unescorted in a facility, whether it is janitorial staff working at night or an HVAC repairman working on the roof. Given what transpires at their locations, fms should shift from “who needs to be checked” to verifying that background checks are actually being performed.

When it comes to hostility related to domestic disputes, while it may be unpopular companies may consider introducing policies related to visits from spouses or significant others. Domestic abuse victims may willingly engage their abuser at the workplace, if they fear a negative impact on their livelihood more than the physical or mental abuse. A policy might require an hour’s notice before a visitor is granted access, giving an employee the chance to deny admittance before a confrontation occurs.

Fms should remember that all violent acts are hostile, but not all hostile acts are violent. It is in the response to hostile acts that the seeds of workplace violence begin. While not all aspects of workplace hostility and safety fall under facility management, fms need to be prepared to adjudicate hostility and have a contingency plan ready to mitigate the possible risks. It is important to raise the dialogue and ensure policies are uniformly enforced; otherwise, all the planning and security measures may be meaningless.

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