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Workplace Safety

Retail has increasingly become a risky job—how can HR help?

HR needs to consider response plans for workplace violence.
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· 6 min read

Some of the most dangerous jobs in America aren’t the ones you might expect. In July, the Department of Justice issued an updated report on workplace violence indicators, which found that between 2015 and 2019, sales and retail professionals (21%) were more likely to be workplace homicide victims than those in law enforcement and security (19%).

Some 79% of those homicides were caused by shootings—and the trend of gun violence in the workplace hasn’t appeared to stop since then. According to analysis by Guns Down America, reported by Business Insider, between January 1, 2020 and May 14, 2022, there were 448 “gun incidents” at large US retailers. Kenna Carlsen, Work to Zero research associate from the National Safety Council, told HR Brew that during the first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic, 400 incidents of workplace violence were reported to the media. Most occurred in retail and dining.

“There were supply-chain issues. There were issues around how many customers…can be in a space at one time,” Carlsen said. “So, a lot of those frustrations, we did see start to boil over.”

Though OSHA doesn’t currently have “specific…standards for workplace violence,” employers are required to provide an environment that is “free from recognized hazards” under its general duty clause. Last week, the agency fined the operator of a Baton Rouge-based chain of car washes and convenience stores over $17,000 for “failing to protect…workers from violence” and neglecting to promptly report injuries after an assistant manager was stabbed. In July, OSHA proposed Family Dollar pay $330,000, alleging that factors like the company’s lack of adequate training in response to robbery and employees’ inability to access immediate emergency-services assistance resulted in a fatal shoplifting incident.

There have been calls to dedicate more resources toward workplace readiness. Last year, the House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation that would require OSHA to issue a workplace violence standard for the healthcare and social services industries, but it stalled in the Senate. In May, senators reintroduced a companion bill to bring focus back to the issue. California lawmakers have recently drafted workplace violence policies designed to keep employees safe in all industries.

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HR Brew reached out to eleven major retailers and companies—including Costco, ShopRite, Albertsons, and Whole Foods—about how they’re updating policies and training for their employees. Stop & Shop’s external communications manager, Maura O’Brien, told HR Brew via email that all associates participate in “mandatory safety training at least once annually.” Sam Jefferies, senior manager of brand reputation and crisis communications at Starbucks, pointed HR Brew to a July letter from the VPs of the company’s US operations announcing plans to up workplace safety. Those changes included closing 16 stores in July—citing safety concerns (critics accused the coffee chain of closing stores to curb unionization efforts)—and new active-shooter training for employees.

Tackle training. Defending against violence, experts told HR Brew, involves layers of internal training, external relationship building, and tech-boosted monitoring. But it doesn’t have to be too expensive. A study from the International Risk Management Institute, an organization that provides compliance education for insurance and risk-management professionals, estimated a comprehensive safety plan can cost a company an average $38,000 to implement and $14,000 to maintain annually.

Carlsen said employers should start with low-tech education: teaching frontline employees—HR’s “eyes and ears”—what constitutes workplace violence and “threats of violence or verbal abuse,” so they can watch for warning signs. Employers can use OSHA guidance, including its Recommendations for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs in Late-Night Retail Establishments guide, to inform training protocols.

Tracy Reinhold, VP and CSO of security solutions company Everbridge, said training should happen quarterly, ideally before the holidays to ensure seasonal staff have “some degree of understanding” and know “how to protect themselves.”

Assemble your team. The next step, Carlsen and Reinhold agreed, is to build relationships with local law enforcement so that if an incident occurs, they’re familiar with the team and facilities. When he worked as a CSO at Fannie Mae in Washington, DC, Reinhold said he allowed Metro PD to use the workplace for weekend SWAT training. He saw it as a win-win.

“Two things happen there: You develop a relationship with the responding law enforcement agency, and they become familiar with your physical facility,” Reinhold said. “All of those things actually help when a response is required, and local law enforcement has to respond.”

There’s tech, too. Carlsen said video analytics can help identify active emergencies—like people running to doors or dropping to the ground—to trigger alarms. Employers can also provide employees with panic buttons to promote safety.

But alarms alone are not enough, Reinhold said.

“It’s not enough to just say, well, we have a panic button, you’re fine,” Reinhold said, adding that an employee should be able to hit a panic button while using their de-escalation training skills. “You can have a safety net, so to speak, to make sure that while you’re de-escalating, the alert’s been sent, and the team is en route.”

Nothing’s perfect. Even with layers of protection, Reinhold said, every situation is different.

“If [there] was a simple solution…the world would have figured this out a long time ago,” he said. “It’s wrong to assume that ‘I’ve dealt with 100 customers, I’ll be fine.’ You need to listen to that sixth sense if it says, ‘This does not feel right. I need to do something about this.’”—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SusannaVogel1 on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Susanna for her number on Signal.

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