Workplace Violence: Are your retail employees safe?

The best way to deal with violence in the workplace is to put into place procedures and guidance that remove the opportunity for violence to occur. In the wake of the Lululemon tragedy, SNEWS reviews workplace safety and presents ideas to help all retailers.
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In the wake of the tragedy at the Lululemon Athletica store in Bethesda, Md., several retailers and industry professionals noted to SNEWS® it was perhaps a very good time to review recommended procedures for keeping employees safe at retail stores around the country.

What happened March 18, 2011, at the Lululemon store after closing turned out not to be the work of robbers. Rather it turned out after investigations to be the alleged murder of a store manager (Jayna Murray) by one of her employees (Brittany Norwood) whom the manager had suspected of stealing. Still, the incident (Click here to see a March 18 Washington Post story) underscored the fact that workplace violence remains a very real risk for all of us.

Naturally, the best way to deal with violence in the workplace is to put into place procedures and guidance that remove the opportunity for violence to occur.

We spoke with Joe LaRocca, senior asset protection advisor for the National Retail Federation, plus we reviewed OSHA documents and publications by WorkSafeBC, an independent, provincial statutory agency in British Columbia, Canada, funded by insurance premiums and administered by the Workers Compensation Act of Canada.

Any violence risk assessment you perform should take into account your store’s individual set of risk factors, and each will be somewhat unique, which is why the National Retail Federation has not published guidelines, according to LaRocca.

Be sure to involve your employees as you put together a plan as they will be able to readily identify areas of the store, inside and outside, that they feel are reasons for concern. It might be inadequate lighting, unsecure doors, dark areas in the store, suspicious people they encounter inside or outside the store, unsafe parking, etc. Ask your employees if there are times and store locations where feel they could be in danger? Ask them if they feel confident that they know how to handle a potentially violent situation – an unruly customer, a shoplifter, a robber? Are they aware of individuals or situations that have been problems in the past that you should know about?

As a store manager or owner, use your knowledge and experience of your business and work location to identify potential problems. Consider all aspects of your business from opening to closing and all times in between.

Many of the modifications you make to improve safety in your store will likely also make your business more attractive to customers which in turn could improve sales and employee morale.

Certain situations -- opening and closing the store, handling money, or employees left in a store after-hours or working alone -- carry a greater risk for violence than other activities, and your entire staff needs to have a clear set of defined procedures to follow to help eliminate or reduce the risk. Written safe work procedures, specific to your store, and made part of an employee manual, will help with employee training.

Even what seem to be simple actions may prevent a situation from developing into a violent one – such as the act of making eye contact with and greeting every person who enters into your store. While that is great for customer service, it also tells a potential thief they have been noticed and might be identified – a fantastic deterrent.

All publications we reviewed identified opening and closing times of a store as the most likely time when retail employees are most likely to experience violent incidents. Although employees may be in a hurry to open or close a store (especially close), they should be especially vigilant and follow clearly delineated store procedures for opening and closing – no exceptions.

It is also recommended that employees work in pairs at opening and closing time, especially when performing the rounds at the end of a shift. And, if counting cash is part of closing procedure, be very sure that no customers are left in the store and that all entrances and exits have been secured.

There are many other things to consider when thinking about creating your own store violence prevention plan. Here are just a few things to ask. Not every item on this list is applicable to every store:

Visibility and lighting

  • Can employees see into and out of the store or do posters, signs, or shrubs and trees block their view?
  • Are employees and the store visible to potential witnesses outside?
  • Does lighting outside and inside the store ensure that would-be thieves or robbers will be recognizable?

Building layout and design

  • Is it easy to distinguish public areas from private areas such as offices?
  • Is access to employee-only areas controlled with locks?
  • Is the cash-handling area separate from the general workplace?
  • Do counters have an elevated place for cash registers?
  • Is alternative access to the building other than fire escapes kept secured?
  • Is public access to washrooms controlled?
  • Are there bushes or unlit or overgrown areas where someone could hide?
  • Are any areas of the store not visible to employees?
  • Are unoccupied rooms in your store locked?

Dangerous tools and equipment

  • Can anyone grab and use tools or other items in your store as weapons against employees?
  • Are tools and equipment locked away when not needed or in use?

Customer service for safety

  • Do employees acknowledge customers with a friendly greeting, smile, and make eye contact?
  • If you have multiple cash registers, are those nearest the entry closed first?
  • Do you ever leave your cash registers unattended and unwatched?

Employee proceedures after store closes

  • Do your employees perform a sweep of the store at closing to ensure there are no customers left in the store?
  • Are back doors ever open or left unlocked after the store closes to make it more convenient to take out the trash, stow recycling, etc?
  • Are doors always locked whenever an employee leaves the store, even for a short time?
  • Do employees take garbage out alone at night?
  • Is the garbage receptacle in a well-lit place?
  • Is there a procedure for checking on an employee who is outside the store after hours performing store duties?

Handling money and deposits

  • Do you count cash only away from entries and exits?
  • Is it standard practice to keep as little cash in the till as possible?
  • Are large bills put into a drop box or safe that is out of sight?
  • If you have counter safes, are they fitted with time-delay locks?
  • Do employees make deposits at night or alone?
  • When employees make deposits together, do they face in opposite directions to keep an eye on the surroundings?
  • Does the time and routine for making deposits vary from day to day to make it less predictable?
  • Do employees transport cash in a bag that has the company logo or otherwise makes it obvious that they are carrying cash?

Files and records

  • Are confidential files and records kept in a locked room?
  • Are filing cabinets containing confidential records locked?

Opening and closing

  • Do employees work in pairs at opening and closing, especially when doing the rounds at the end of a shift?
  • Do your written procedures for opening and closing emphasize personal safety? For example, “Don’t count the cash from the till at the sales counter or in plain view.”

Travelling to and from work

  • Do employees have the option of asking for an escort to walk to their cars or the bus stop?
  • Can employees park nearby and within sight of the store entrance, especially at night?
  • Is evening or night parking available for employees in nearby spaces normally reserved for customers?

For more, we would suggest downloading the PDF, “Preventing Violence, Robbery and Theft – A guide for retail owners, managers and workers” which was created to help retailers in British Columbia, Canada by WorkSafeBC. While the legal requirements are distinctly Canadian, much of the common-sense and other advice is extremely useful to any retailer seeking to put together their own employee safety plan.

--Michael Hodgson

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