The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has laid out new workplace strategies for COVID-19-related violence prevention in order to avoid conflict if customers refuse to adhere to safety protocols being enforced by employees.
The CDC has posted information on limiting workplace violence related to retail and service businesses’ COVID-19 prevention policies. This information is also intended for other customer-based businesses, including department stores, grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants that are opened and have implemented state, municipality, and company-directed Coronavirus prevention policies.
The policies that may prompt violence toward workers include requiring masks to be worn by employees and customers, asking customers to follow social distancing rules, and setting limits to the number of customers allowed in a business at any given time.
The CDC defines workplace violence as “violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.” Workplace violence includes:
Threat: verbal, written, and physical expressions that could reasonably be interpreted as intending to cause harm.
Verbal assault: yelling, swearing, insulting, or bullying another person with the intent of hurting or causing harm. Unlike physical assaults, the intent is not necessarily to cause physical harm, but negative emotions of the person being assaulted.
Physical assault: hitting, slapping, kicking, pushing, choking, grabbing, or other physical contacts with the intent of causing injury or harm.
Employers are encouraged to take the following actions to prevent workplace violence:
Offer customers options to minimize their contact with others and promote social distancing. These options can include curbside pick-up; personal shoppers; home delivery for groceries, food, and other services; and alternative shopping hours.
Advertise COVID-19-related policies on the business website.
Put in place steps to assess and respond to workplace violence. The response will depend on the severity of the violence and on the size and structure of the business. Possible responses may include reporting to a manager or supervisor on-duty, calling security, or calling 911.
Assign two workers to work as a team to encourage COVID-19 prevention policies to be followed if staffing permits.
Identify a safe area for employees to go to if they feel they are in danger (e.g., a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route, and has a phone or silent alarm).
Post signs that let customers know about policies for wearing masks, social distancing, and the maximum number of people allowed in a business facility.
Provide employee training on threat recognition, conflict resolution, nonviolent response, and any other relevant topics related to workplace violence response.
Remain aware of and support employees and customers if a threatening or violent situation occurs.
Install security systems (e.g., panic buttons, cameras, alarms) and train employees on how to use them.
As part of the training, employees often learn verbal and non-verbal cues that may be warning signs of possible violence. Verbal cues can include speaking loudly or swearing. Non-verbal cues can include clenched fists, heavy breathing, fixed stare, and pacing, among other behaviors. The more cues have shown, the greater the risk of violence.
During training, employees also learn how to appropriately respond to potentially violent or violent situations. Responses range from paying attention to a person and maintaining non-threatening eye contact to using supportive body language and avoiding threatening gestures, such as finger-pointing or crossed-arms.
Basic “dos” for employees to prevent workplace violence include:
Do attend all employer-provided training on how to recognize, avoid, and respond to potentially violent situations.
Do report perceived threats or acts of violence to your manager or supervisor, following any existing policies that may be in place.
To remain aware of and support coworkers and customers if a threatening or violent situation occurs.
Basic “don’ts” for employees to prevent workplace violence include:
Don’t argue with a customer if they make threats or become violent. If needed, go to a safe area (ideally, a room that locks from the inside, has a second exit route, and has a phone or silent alarm).
Don’t attempt to force anyone who appears upset or violent to follow COVID-19 prevention policies or other policies or practices related to COVID-19 (e.g. limits on the number of household or food products).