Originally created 09/13/98

Employers battling violence



More than 1,000 employees of DSM Chemicals and PCS Nitrogen were asked during a workplace violence seminar this summer if they had ever heard of the R.E. Phelon Co.

Nearly everyone knew the company was the site of last year's violent rampage by a disgruntled employee that left four dead and three wounded.

The employees were then asked what else they knew about Phelon, such as what products it manufactured. About five hands went up.

That hit home with PCS and DSM, who are among the first major employers in the metro area to take pre-emptive steps against workplace violence.

"An incident (like Phelon) is certainly very damaging to a public image," said Pete Brodie, PCS Nitrogen's personnel director. "We're trying to ensure that type of thing will never happen here."

With assistance from Concern, an employee assistance program affiliated with University Hospital, the two companies have adopted "zero tolerance" policies for workplace violence.

Under these policies, everything from physical fighting to making a threat against another employee are grounds for dismissal.

Such policies are the simplest and most effective way to keep violent behavior from brewing in the workplace, according to Harry Weathers, director of the Concern Employee Assistance Program.

"Under a zero tolerance policy, you let your employees know any threat will be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly," Mr. Weathers said. "Without one, you set yourself up for tolerating that behavior."

Although neither PCS nor DSM has ever reported a violent incident at its property, both have also made physical security changes to deter an armed attack.

PCS has upgraded its video monitor system and perimeter security while DSM, which has its own armed guards, has installed a controlled-access door and bulletproof glass in the administration building.

Skeet Whitworth, DSM's administrative vice president, said he hopes the company's new safeguards will never be put to the test in a real-life situation.

"The Phelon incident, as well as others in the last few years, forced us to look at weak points in our security," Mr. Whitworth said. "This is all preventative in nature."

Security measures that would have seemed paranoid are becoming commonplace given the outbreak of violent rampages in recent decades, officials say. And the term "EAP," short for employee assistance program, is becoming standard human resources vernacular.

Concern's EAP program, part of the University Behavioral Health Link, was established in 1983 to offer substance abuse and marital counseling for the employees of business and industrial clients.

But the organization has made workplace violence prevention its major focus since last year's Phelon incident and 1996 shooting deaths of three social workers at a North Augusta human services office.

EAP programs, once called only after shootings took place, now consult with and advise employers who have not suffered such violence on everything from screening potentially violent employees to conducting layoffs or discharges with sensitivity.

"We were in the business of responding to violence," said Dr. Larry Bergmann, a pioneer in workplace violence prevention who operates an EAP program in Columbia. "We started asking ourselves why we were not at the preventative end."

The CSRA Human Resources Association is sponsoring a workplace violence seminar from 8 to 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 8 in the Patrick Technology Center at Augusta Technical Institute. The $20 fee includes refreshments. For information, call Connie Martin at 481-7457.