The MeToo movement and other awareness-raising efforts have brought harassment to the forefront as one of the most important safety issues in the workplace today. Harassment is not something we can continue to ignore or minimize. We must finally recognize it as the hazard that it is.
How is harassment a workplace safety issue?
When we think about common workplace safety issues, we often think about the causes of physical injuries. However, we must remember that mental health is a safety issue, too. Harassment harms a person’s emotional and psychological wellness, which can lead to physical issues. Stress and fatigue are common causes of physical injuries, and harassment contributes to stress and fatigue.
Physical injuries aside, the mental health impact alone of harassment is enough to qualify it as a workplace safety issue. Just like more obvious physical injuries, poor mental wellness impacts an employees ability to perform their jobs well, if at all. When reporting health and safety issues in the workplace, then, managers need to include harassment in their assessments.
Consider that threats and acts of harassment are similar to physical threats and injuries. They make workers less productive, anxious, and distracted, and increase the likelihood that employees will seek employment elsewhere.
Furthermore, from a regulatory standpoint, harassment is illegal. So even if employers don’t see harassment as a critical safety concern, the bottom line is that it’s prohibited by law.
What is harassment?
In the news, the issue of harassment as a workplace safety issue largely, if not completely, centers around sexual harassment. And it’s about time. But this is just one type of harassment. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, any unwelcome behavior based on any of the following is harassment:
- Sex or Pregnancy
- National origin
- Age (40 or older)
- Genetic information
Harassment can take many forms, which can include unwanted touching or other physical violations, cyber-bullying, offensive language, and any type of intimidation.
Why is harassment an important topic now?
Diligently preventing harassment is something we should have been doing all along, but we haven’t. Some environments and industries have been notorious for poor behavior. All too often people have made excuses to the tune of, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”
The good news is that attitudes are changing. There’s increasing awareness of sexual harassment and bullying. The media and the public, in general, are paying attention and calling for change and justice. In similarity, workplaces are becoming more diverse. These two shifts are strengthening the need to address and remedy issues around harassment in the workplace like never before.
Dealing with harassment as a workplace safety issue
As with all other safety training, you need to establish and communicate that harassment is not tolerated in your office. It’s also important to clarify what harassment is. For some people, what may seem like a harmless joke or playful teasing may feel demeaning or offensive to someone else.
Addressing harassment can be particularly tricky in environments that have previously been lax about harassment oversight. There’s bound to be a lot of pushback, and perhaps even complaints from established employees about new hires being too sensitive or thin-skinned.
Those naysayers need to understand that it’s not okay to be disrespectful to coworkers, and their behavior poses safety issues in the workplace. Articles and videos about creating a harassment-free zone abound to help you handle this difficult issue.
“Keeping an open dialog is also crucial to cultivating an atmosphere of respect, where everyone feels welcome and safe.”
Keeping an open dialog is also crucial to cultivating an atmosphere of respect, where everyone feels welcome and safe. Consider setting aside time during safety meetings to host an open discussion about speech and actions that are appropriate, and those that are not. This is a great way to introduce unexpected ideas in a safety moment, which, in addition to covering an important topic, helps keep workers engaged in the safety discussion.
Consider starting the dialog with a hypothetical situation. Discuss ways to handle your proposed scenario. Remind employees who they can talk to if they experience harassment or have specific questions.
If leadership is not well-equipped to handle a hostile work environment, consider bringing in a mediator who can develop protocols, oversee adherence, and educate employees. For example, those within the construction sector in Western Canada are organizing to provide such third-party assistance to address harassment. Also, be sure to solicit help from everyone. Encourage your employees to take a proactive role in creating a safer workplace.
Preventing harassment is simply a matter of respect
Addressing workplace harassment can appear complex and overwhelming when you first get started or if you’re in a hurry when lawsuits are thrown into the mix. However, the reality is that it’s easy to understand what a harassment-free environment looks like: it’s a place where employees show mutual respect toward each other.
Employees don’t have to be friends. They don’t even have to like each other. But they do need to be respectful. And a mutually respectful work environment doesn’t just eliminate incidents of harassment. It’s a place where all safety issues in the workplace are more likely to subside or disappear as well.
TJ Scimone founded Slice, Inc. in 2008. Since 2008 he’s made safety his top priority, creating a unique line of safer cutting tools that feature finger-friendly® blades, including box cutters and utility knives.
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