New CDC Guidelines Published on How to Limit Workplace Violence During the Pandemic

By Katherine Goelz

On August 24, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on how to limit workplace violence in retail, services, and other customer-facing businesses. These guidelines are specifically aimed at businesses that have implemented safety measures designed to limit the transmission of the virus, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and limiting the number of patrons permitted to enter establishments at one time.

According to the CDC, workplace violence consists of “violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.” It includes threats and verbal assault. A rising number of incidents of workplace violence have occurred since businesses began to enforce safety measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Earlier this month, a customer entered Cigars International in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania without a mask despite Governor Wolf’s mandate which requires masks to be worn inside businesses. When a staff member informed the customer that masks were required, the man became angry, stole merchandise, and left without paying. When another employee followed the man outside to recover the goods, the man fired multiple shots at the employee and fled the scene. Similar acts have occurred around the country and get shared on social media. In Washington, D.C., a man spat and threw food at a coffee shop owner after she asked that he please wear a mask in her store. In New York, a customer physically assaulted three Trader Joe’s when he was asked to wear a mask.

To limit these incidents, the CDC recommends that businesses train employees on conflict resolution and nonviolent actions such as “remaining calm, giving a person space, making sure other people are in the area, and not touching the person or trying to forcibly remove them.” Other suggested actions include installing cameras, panic buttons, and alarms as well as designating a “safe area” for employees to go if a situation escalates to a potentially dangerous confrontation. The main takeaways from the new CDC guidelines are illustrated in a printable poster with “basic do’s and don’ts” for preventing violence in the workplace. These instructions include suggestions such as “don’t argue with a customer if they make threats or become violent” and “don’t attempt to force anyone who appears upset or violent to follow COVID-19 prevention policies.” Currently, there is no federal law to enforce mask wearing, even though studies have shown that wearing a mask lowers person-to-person transmission of the virus. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia mandate mask-wearing in public. As infections rise and violent confrontations between customers and small business employees persist because of customers’ refusal to follow safety guidelines, a national mandate may be necessary to stop the spread of the virus.

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