Why preventing workplace violence is so challenging

Last week, New York City residents were among those throughout the U.S. who were horrified to learn of the one-air shooting murders of WDBJ-TV news reporter, Alison Parker and cameraman, Adam Ward. It was soon discovered that the brutal and violent act was carried out by a disgruntled former television station employee named Vester Flanagan.

As details and stories of Flanagan’s life and employment history began to surface, it became clear that he was a man who likely suffered from mental illness. Roughly two years ago, Flanagan was fired after less than one year from his position at WDBJ due to continued “belligerence and other problems,” interacting with co-workers and superiors.

The horrific tragedy has raised many questions and concerns about workplace safety as employers often struggle with how to both protect employees from potential acts of workplace violence and comply with labor and privacy laws. While Flanagan was reported to have been “ordered to obtain counseling from employee assistance,” at WDBJ, little else is known about his medical history and whether or not he was ever diagnosed as suffering from any mental disorder.

What’s more, even if it was known by WDBJ supervisors that Flanagan had a history of mental illness, employment laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act strictly prohibit U.S. employers from discriminating against employees with physical or mental disabilities. Still, employers are legally required to provide safe and hazard-free work environments.

During the 13 years proceeding 2010, 8,666 workplace homicides occurred in the U.S., approximately 10 percent of these incidents involved “co-workers or former co-workers.” This most recent and very public act of workplace violence highlights the complex legal issues that employers must consider with regard to workplace safety, discrimination and violence that at best may result in an employee taking legal action and at worst, could result in an employee losing his or her life.

Source: The New York Times, “Virginia Shooting Spotlights Riddle of Workplace Safety,” Erik Eckholm and Richard A. Oppel Jr., Aug. 27, 2015

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