California's Workplace Violence Law Expands Policy Requirements

With the passage of California Senate Bill 533, which took effect last September, workplace violence prevention measures will become more widespread. The law requires nearly all employers in California to have a workplace violence prevention plan in place by July 1, 2024.

The plan must be in writing and include employee participation, requires identification and elimination of hazards, record keeping, reporting capabilities, training and emergency procedures to prevent workplace violence.

EHS spoke to Matthew Doherty, Executive Director of Workplace Management at Sikich and former Secret Service Special Agent in Charge of the National Threat Assessment Center, on the impact of this law.

EHS: Many companies already have policies on workplace violence. What impact will this law have on those policies?

MD: Over the past 15 years, our experience in developing workplace violence prevention policies, programs and training, and in consulting on serious workplace situations, has been that many companies believe they have a policy against workplace violence, when in reality they have a plan in place to respond to active workplace violence or active attackers.

So they're mixing the two issues. But even if they have a pretty good policy, program, or training, the policy needs to be revised to fully cover the broad guidelines of 553.

We have studied workplace violence prevention strategies and developed programs, but often even large, sophisticated companies' employee handbooks contain only a simple sentence stating that workplace violence will not be tolerated.

The problem is that they do not consider all aspects of workplace violence and therefore do not have early intervention plans.

EHS: What prompted California to pass this law?

MD: IOn May 26, 2021, a shooting by a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority employee left nine people dead in San Jose.

This employee had clearly been identified as having problems and was a cause for concern.

Senator Dave Cortese made it his life's work to pass this bill, and in September 2023, Governor Newsom signed the bill into law. And it's really the first of its kind in the country that we know of that has these requirements.

Environmental and safety regulations: Do you think companies are aware of the extent of violence in the workplace, which includes harassment, intimidation, etc.?

MD: There are some myths out there. I'm pretty sure that employers who threaten physical violence or overt sexual harassment will report it. There's also the myth that we're only talking about peer-to-peer violence. Well, that's not the case.

There are four types of situations that need to be categorized:

  • Type 1 is criminal intent, where a person has no legitimate reason to be at the location and commits crimes at work.
  • In type 2, the person could be a customer, client, visitor or supplier and the action is directed by these people against the employees.
  • Type 3 is an employee-to-employee situation in which violence occurs against an employee by a current or former employee, supervisor or manager.
  • Type 4 concerns personal relationships. For example, an employee might have a personal relationship with the attacker.

Employers must now take all situations into account.

However, the bill presents some challenges for employers, particularly smaller ones, as they may not have the resources, expertise or awareness to meet the requirements.

Environmental and safety regulations: What measures should companies take in this area?

Above all, companies need to understand the extent of violence in the workplace. The definition is now broader and goes beyond the direct threat of physical violence to include acts of violence that result in trauma, stress and injury.

This is why companies need to move from a reactive to a proactive stance. With companies required to increase reporting rates, there is a greater opportunity to intervene before the problem escalates. If someone is exhibiting worrying behavior and domestic violence is suspected, action can be taken early.

From an employee perspective, this type of policy creates an improved culture of safety, respect and mental wellbeing in the workplace and can help encourage the reporting of concerning behaviour, creating the opportunity for early intervention.

Companies must also be aware of these financial implications. Responding to a serious incident of workplace violence is at least 100 times more expensive than proactive, preventative measures. In a 2019 estimate by the government organization CISA (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure and Security Agency), the financial impact of workplace violence was $130 billion.

I would recommend that employers consult outside professionals to help them develop and evaluate their workplace violence prevention plans, train their employees and managers, and provide guidance and support in difficult situations.

EHS: Do you think companies outside of California will comply with these new requirements?

Managing Director: This California standard is good and it makes sense to implement it company-wide. Moreover, we would not be surprised if other states enacted similar laws.There are many California consumer and protection laws in place, and there are indications that OSHA is monitoring them very, very closely.

It is therefore advisable to anticipate this and apply these standards.

Note: EHS has created a podcast based on this interview.

Anna Harden

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