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Safety Update: Employee Attacks Co-Worker: What Should You Do About It?

By Chris Kilbourne

Source: Safety Daily Advisor

Here’s a report of a real court case involving an assault by one employee on a co-worker. You probably won’t see such cases featured on the evening news, but they happen all the time—and they are incidents of workplace violence that need to be addressed.

When Buddy arrived at work that day for the second shift at ABC Manufacturing, he was like a bear with a sore paw. The 470-pound Walker told a co-worker that he’d had a fight with his wife and was in a lousy mood.

At the time clock, he ran into another employee, Gary, who was just clocking out from the first shift. Gary said hello but got no response from the grouchy Buddy until he accidentally brushed his time card against Buddy’s arm.

Suddenly, Buddy went ballistic, yelling at Gary, pinning him against the time clock, and then bending him backward over it. As a result of Buddy’s sudden unprovoked attack, Gary sustained severe injuries to his back, resulting in a lot of time away from work, surgery, and medical bills.

Once he was more or less on his feet again, Gary applied for workers’ comp benefits, asking for $58,556 in medical expenses, $3,312 for 8 weeks’ temporary total disability, and $16,250 for 25 percent permanent impairment. He also filed a lawsuit against Buddy for battery.

Buddy settled for $3,000, but the employer didn’t get off so lightly. The workers’ comp commission awarded Gary all the benefits he’d asked for, minus the $3,000 he’d already collected from Buddy.

ABC promptly appealed the decision to a state court on the grounds that Gary’s injuries weren’t work related. “The injuries had nothing to do with the employee’s job,” ABC maintained in court. “It was just a case of horseplay between two employees. And according to the state’s law, a participant in workplace horseplay is not eligible for workers’ comp benefits.”

ABC won the first round, but Gary appealed to the state’s highest court.

What the Court  Said

The employee deserves his benefits, ruled the Indiana Supreme Court. The injury was “within the scope of employment,” said the court, because it occurred while the employee was walking toward the time clock to end his shift, which meant he was still technically on the job.

The court also found that this was not a case of horseplay, as the employer claimed. Rather, it was an unprovoked attack by one employee on another.

Although a participant in horseplay is not entitled to workers’ compensation, said the court, an innocent victim of a violent incident such as an assault is. The court therefore awarded the employee the full $78,000 in comp payments minus a $3,000 credit for the money collected from his attacker.

What to Remember About This Case

The unprovoked attack in this case was an incident of workplace violence. And it probably wasn’t the first time that this big, aggressive employee had acted out in the workplace, letting loose his temper and taking out his frustrations on co-workers.

Belligerent conduct is usually part of pattern of behavior that rears its ugly head from time to time on the job. You play a key role in preventing incidents like this one. The first time an employee resorts to threats, intimidation, or violence, make sure to act immediately. Depending on the severity of the incident, this might mean a formal warning or some other form of discipline.

In some cases, especially those involving repeat incidents, you will also want to make sure the employee gets some kind of professional counseling for his or her behavior problem. And be sure to review your organization’s violence prevention policy with the employee, making it clear that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.

Remember, workplace violence doesn’t just involve guns and shooting. It involves anykind of violent behavior or threats.