Training to Prevent Building Liabilities

June 16, 2009
You’re liable for accidents and injuries that occur on your building’s premises, but well-trained employees/tenants help reduce liability risks

The amount of money lost annually by businesses due to liability suits is in the millions, says Merrill Fischbein, risk manager and insurance broker at Minneapolis-based Fischbein Insurance Services.

What’s more: “Any liability claim is probably preventable,” says Fischbein. “You just need to check your hazards.” But, identifying and fixing facility hazards isn’t always easy; that’s why it’s important to have well-trained employees who are able to identify and fix potential hazards to guests or occupants, and who conduct their tasks in a safe manner to prevent injuries or accidents that may be liabilities.

Non-employees or guests who enter your building have what’s called “invitee status.” According to Mike Ekiss, associate vice president of loss control at Nationwide in Des Moines, IA, “At any point in time when they’re on your property, you owe those individuals the highest degree of care.” This degree of care includes making the building a safe place to be. Additionally, it’s “not just the owner or the manager, but all employees of the business have an expectation or accountability to maintain the safe premises,” says Ekiss.

Likewise, it’s not just a building’s customers who are entitled to safe premises. “The obligation to employee safety is equally high,” says Ekiss. So, employees must be properly trained to protect their own safety and the safety of the customers to protect you from a liability suit.

“The biggest risk is probably slips and falls,” says Fischbein. But, dozens of other hazards can also create a liability, including trip hazards, such as concrete parking bumpers; doors that can trap people by shutting too quickly; ADA-compliance issues; inadequate lighting; security issues, such as inadequate security measures; and emergency lighting and evacuation procedures, among others. Business owners also have a liability to protect their employees and clients from harassment, discrimination, and workplace violence.

With such a laundry list of potential liability risks, preventing possible liability suits can be a difficult job; a building owner must show that he or she has done everything possible to prevent the incident. “If the building is negligent in any manner, then, of course, it’s liable,” says Fischbein. “So, they need to be sure that their carpets aren’t frayed, their steps aren’t slippery, and their sidewalks are shoveled.” Proper maintenance to avoid slip-and-fall accidents is certainly a start to liability prevention, but it doesn’t cover everything, and you can’t be everywhere to monitor every potential hazard. Avoiding negligence (and, thus, liability) means that you must provide your employees with the tools necessary to do their jobs safely and keep the workplace safe for invitees.

Liability prevention boils down to the issue of safety, and thorough employee training can ensure that a building is safe for employees and customers. Jim Kerins is CIO at Carrollton, TX-based Critical Information Network (CiNet), a company that provides distance-learning solutions for basic skills and safety training in a variety of verticals, including industrial and healthcare facilities. According to Kerins, “Any time you have employee training, whether it be safety training or basic skills training, you have to train the employee to have a situational awareness of what’s around them – how to spot a dangerous situation and how to respond to dangerous conditions.”

Employees must be trained on what to do in a hazardous situation because it keeps them safe (and because they’re also responsible for keeping guests inside the building safe). “Everybody in the operation owns that responsibility to be able to recognize a hazard, point it out to management, and take the steps necessary to fix it,” says Ekiss. “There are definitely some risk-management techniques that can prevent a lot of losses.” But, risks can’t be managed to the highest possible degree if employees aren’t aware of how to deal with them. “If a building owner has a known hazard, and they’re not training their people on how to deal with that known hazard, then they’re certainly accepting more liability than they ought to,” says Kerins.

Building hazards can include anything from known hazards, such as having heavy things to lift or dangerous chemicals on the premises, to situational hazards, such as soaked floor mats or broken tiles. Regardless of the type of hazard, “the employees really need to know what to do when those hazards come up – what the protocol is on how to react,” says Kerins. “All that training simply helps them respond more effectively and more efficiently, not only for their own safety and the safety of others around them, but also for the workplace, so they’re not causing major losses in your buildings or interruptions in your manufacturing processes.”

As Kerins mentions, workplace liability can cause a great deal of loss even if a lawsuit isn’t filed. “There’s an inseparable link between productivity and liability. They’re inverse of each other,” says Joni E. Johnston, president and CEO at San Diego-based WorkRelationships, a company that provides prevention training in harassment, discrimination, workplace violence, performance management, discipline, and termination. “Anything that you’re doing to improve productivity is going to reduce liability.”

This is true not only of safety training, which prevents reduced productivity caused by accidents, but also of interpersonal training, which can increase productivity by providing positive working environments and reduce liability caused by inappropriate person-to-person interactions. “It’s important that managers and supervisors be aware that they can potentially be liable for the conduct of anybody who comes in their building, not just people they directly supervise or who they have on staff,” says Johnston. “One of the things employers need to do is help employees understand their rights, their responsibilities, what harassment looks like, and what behaviors might get them in trouble,” says Johnston.

Likewise, it’s important that managers and supervisors are given training because, “when you have a supervisor or manager who’s under pressure to perform, but hasn’t had any skilled training in the management area, they’re more likely to do things to employees that unintentionally hurts feelings or causes conflicts; that can then create a liability,” says Johnston. Humiliating someone, treating someone poorly, or treating someone insensitively are all things that may cause a possible lawsuit, and then money becomes a measure of justice for the wronged party. Thus, training employees on proper workplace behavior can help prevent these types of liabilities (and losses).

Further losses can be caused by known building hazards if an accident occurs due to lack of knowledge. “If an employee is working in situations where it’s a hazardous operation, and he/she doesn’t have the proper training and gets injured, you’re liable,” says Ekiss, who also believes that training is about enabling employees to be aware of their surroundings to prevent injuries. “When they see an unsafe condition, employees have to proactively bring their management into knowledge of it or proactively address it themselves. So, it’s really just an awareness.”

That awareness encompasses all kinds of safety issues. “Some of the training is pretty basic and focused on the employee, like knowing how to lift things without injuring your back, knowing to wear gloves as you’re dealing with various caustic materials, knowing to wear the appropriate harnesses if you’re lifting or being elevated above 8 feet,” says Kerins. “You also have to train people on how to deal with electrical currents and moving machinery parts if there’s a malfunction, and how to respond to that malfunction.”

Additionally, employees must be aware of certain external hazards. Kerins says that employees must also be aware of what to do in cases of fires, tornadoes, noxious fumes, and crime. And, with the increase in infectious diseases, employees must also be trained on hygiene and how to prevent the spread of disease and blood-borne pathogens.

Keeping your building safe for employees and customers alike includes keeping them safe from contracting infectious diseases. “If companies or corporations don’t have infectious diseases as part of their safety programs, they’re putting their companies and employees at risk,” says Marlene Linders, president and CEO at Philders Group Intl., a Heathrow, FL-based company that does environmental consulting for emerging infectious diseases in public buildings. “If there’s an issue in the building and the building owners and operators can’t show a due-diligence policy, that certainly increases risk and liability.” Training employees on correct hand hygiene and correct cleansing and cleaning practices is one way for you to show due diligence in regard to infectious diseases.

Infectious disease training has many components: “[Contractors and employees] need to understand exactly which infectious diseases are airborne, which are respiratory, and which techniques are effective, and how they’re applied,” says Linders. “They also need to understand that monitoring baseline air quality sampling of high-touch areas is a prudent measure to establish due diligence.” Other important training in regard to infectious-disease control includes training in HVAC and maintenance vendor policy and selection, environmental hygiene, cleaning practices, equipment assessment and maintenance, cleaning methodology, and laundry procedures.

Providing employees with this training and information can help you show that you weren’t negligent if a claim is made upon the contraction of an illness or infection caused by an environmental toxin. “Knowledge increases your awareness,” says Linders. “And, when you apply that knowledge to the job, then you avoid mistakes. You’re prepared, or you expect things and are able to prepare, so you’re working in a proactive mode vs. a reactive mode.”

Amanda B. Piell ([email protected]) is news editor at Buildings magazine.

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