A few of my staff members tell me they feel frightened working in a public building, and I don’t know how to make them feel safe. What should I do?
By Adrienne Pettinelli, Director of the Henrietta Public Library
I am going to channel my Inner Dad here: the world is not safe. It’s not unsafe, either. The world is a mix of safe and unsafe, and the ways we navigate and feel about that are highly personal. Let me share a list of some of the things I have felt some level of concern about at various points over the last few years:
- Dying of COVID-19.
- Getting long COVID.
- Dying from a bee sting. (I’m allergic.)
- Getting hit by a car when I am running, biking, or walking my dog.
- A parasite from my cats’ litter boxes taking over my brain. (Read more here.)
- Getting lead poisoning or some horrible asbestos-related disease because I live in a 100-year-old house, and God knows what’s going on in the walls.
- Dying in a fire because, again, I live in a 100-year-old house, and there might not be enough lead or asbestos in it to compensate for the ancient wiring system.
- The fact that I have no idea how I would corral my cats and dog in the event of a fire.
Perhaps you’ve worried about some of these things, too. Perhaps you haven’t. That’s the thing about fear—it’s individualized, rising from a blend of personality, experience, and environment.
The other thing about my list is that while all those things could happen, none of them have happened, and mostly things have been just fine. The amount of worry I feel about toxoplasmosis is probably disproportionate to the amount of risk toxoplasmosis represents in my daily life. The concern I feel about someone hitting me while I’m doing all my forms of active transportation—that’s probably more proportional to my actual risk, but I’m still very unlikely to be hit by a car while walking my dog, partly because I’m always mindful when I’m near the road and am careful to obey the rules of the road when I am on it in any capacity.
The upshot of all this is that the person who is responsible for managing my fear is me. I feel the fear, I evaluate the fear, and I make choices around how I want to handle my fear.
That’s everyone else’s responsibility, too. You as a human being can’t make anyone feel anything, and so as a manager, your bar for success can’t be making everyone feel safe, especially not if you’re running one of the many, many libraries that unlock their doors every morning and let anyone in. My library is a public library, and by definition we welcome in a lot of people who are going to make staff feel a lot of ways, and some of that is not about the people in front of us as much as it’s about the people we are.
Also, our staff members deserve a safe working environment, and it is our obligation as managers to mitigate risk, ensure our staff have the tools they need to be reasonably safe day-to-day, and develop policies and procedures for when things go wrong.
So this is the trick—to understand that safety is not about people’s feelings, but about legal and regulatory structures that have been built to protect people. It’s also about clear-eyed analysis of work environments to make sensible decisions about what types of safety and security measures will provide benefits and make the environment more functional for the greatest number of people, including both the staff and the people being served. In libraries, we’re there to serve all members of our communities (whether those communities are towns, cities, schools, universities, museums, or any other place where there’s a library), providing they are not significantly violating our policies. We can’t make decisions about who to serve, who not to serve, or how to treat people based on how we feel.
As an employer, you have some legal and regulatory obligations, and you’ll need to consult attorneys and HR experts to best understand those. You can also find excellent resources on the types of policies, procedures, and trainings you must have in place through the web sites of organizations like the NYS Department of Labor, OSHA, the CDC, and the Society of Human Resource Management. Libraries that are members of a library system can also reach out to their system for guidance. I hope I don’t have to tell you how to do research, but understand that as good as you are at research, you aren’t as good at law or HR rules, so get help and consult experts in those fields. I know, I know. You don’t have the money or don’t want to spend money on this, but we live in 2023, and you have to. You just have to. Police departments, fire departments, and ambulance companies can be other great, potentially free resources for evaluating safety concerns and creating solid policies, procedures, and training.
I think most of us want to provide more safety than is required. This is where you can lean on the tried-and-true trifecta of policies, procedures, and training—ones that are not legally required, but that will help your organization function consistently. I used to be one of these people who was like, “Why do we need policies and procedures? They’re so rigid.” But as a seasoned leader, I know that having guidelines and boundaries are helpful for all concerned. One doesn’t want to become overly rule-bound, but an utter lack of rules is chaotic and unsafe. It’s also no good to create policies and procedures unless you’re including them as part of orientation training and regularly refreshing that training. It’s not enough to tack procedures up on the wall—it’s important to talk about them and practice them where appropriate.
There are other types of trainings you can offer that will increase staff members’ confidence about how to respond in the case of various emergencies: CPR, first aid, fire extinguisher use, administering naloxone, de-escalation techniques, and so on. Employee Assistance Programs can be useful to help staff process their feelings about their safety as well as workplace stress. It’s important to consider the safety of buildings, too. There are basic considerations like making sure exits are unobstructed and clearly marked, and then there are more involved considerations like sight lines, security mirrors, security cameras, and locations of service desks and staff workspaces. Some environments may need personnel dedicated to security or more specialized security equipment. With all of the above, it’s important to carefully consider what an environment’s risks really are and the effectiveness you can expect from various approaches to mitigate them vs. the unintended difficulties they may cause for staff and patrons.
In the end, safety isn’t an event. It’s a habit. If you as a manager are talking about safety a lot—creating policies, offering trainings, attending trainings, dealing with small issues before they become big issues—then you are going to encourage your staff members to take safety seriously feel as empowered and safe as a person is ever going to feel when they interact with strangers every day in a relatively open environment. Channeling my Inner Dad again: The best defense is a good offense.
Speaking of which, it’s time to change the batteries in my smoke detectors.