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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

April 18, 2008

You can make your office a safer place

by Anne Krapfl

Are there things ISU employees can do to be safer in their workplaces? Can we take steps to head off potentially violent situations? Yes, says Jerry Stewart, director of the department of public safety.

"The likelihood for harassing or threatening behavior is much greater than an incident resulting in actual physical harm," he noted. "Because of this, we encourage employees to take some proactive measures that could prevent an incident from escalating."

These include both policy and logistical considerations, Stewart said. For example:

  • Establish standards for performance and behavior -- and communicate them
  • Conduct appropriate reference checks and inquiries during the hiring process
  • Resolve conflicts early; don't let things fester
  • Train employees to deal with difficult situations
  • Report incidents to supervisors and university police (types of behavior to report include threatening or intimidating voices; shoving; retaliation; throwing items; assault; threatening text messages, e-mails or phone messages; notes left on chalk or white boards)

"Employees should never feel they're bothering us, or be embarrassed about calling us," Stewart said. "The most tragic thing is when people were aware of a threatening situation and didn't report it.

"We're in the business of early intervention. We're also a central clearinghouse, which often provides a more complete picture of what might seem to you to be an isolated incident," he noted.

Talk it over

Stewart encourages employees to use staff meeting time to talk about the layout of their building and to develop a basic safety plan. Faculty who teach in more than one building should consider this for all buildings they use. Questions to answer could include:

  • Where are the circuit box and water shutoff valve?
  • Where's the fire extinguisher and how does it work?
  • Is there an updated phone tree or some other person-to-person communication plan?
  • Are our phones programmed for 911 and university police?
  • What are the exit options from our offices?
  • Where are all the stairwells, not just the one I usually use?
  • Where's our storm shelter?
  • Can we escape through windows?
  • Does our furniture and office layout give us options for getting out?

"Most people have a plan at home. We encourage them to think the same way in their workplaces," Stewart said. "Think about what you'd do in an emergency and discuss your plans with your co-workers."

As part of that workplace assessment, Stewart offered these tips for safer offices:

  • Don't have employees working alone or out of sight lines from others
  • If possible, remove or secure potential weapons (flammable liquids, hazardous chemicals, glassware, knives)
  • Arrange offices so there's more than one way to exit
  • Don't make office modifications or place furniture where it blocks an exit or covers access to utilities
  • Word-of-mouth is the best way to communicate warnings about potentially dangerous situations

Assistance for your office

ISU police officers are available to speak with employees in a department or office about preventing workplace violence and responding to it. For example, university police officers can tailor a PowerPoint presentation to the issues you request. Or, they can assess your office layout or make suggestions for incorporating better safety into a remodeling project. Call 4-4428 to request this kind of training.

"It's impossible to apply a specific set of instructions to multiple situations," said public safety director Jerry Stewart. "We can provide you with a range of response options to potentially violent situations, to include: evacuating to a safe area; hiding in a secured area; attempting to de-escalate the situation; or, as a last resort, confronting an aggressor.

"People need to use their decision-making skills and their instincts to choose an option for that time and situation," he said.