Q: Employees were discussing recent news reports about workplace violence, personal protection, and the pros and cons of gun ownership. Several remarked that they carry pocket-sized pepper spray containers all the time, including at work. We already have a policy banning weapons at work. Can that be expanded to ban pepper spray as well?
A: You are certainly within your rights to ban such substances at your workplace as part of a ban on weapons, even though sale and possession of pepper spray is legal in Connecticut. Pepper spray is a powerful inflammatory agent that can cause almost instantaneous, nonpermanent incapacity due to temporary blindness, difficulty breathing, excessive coughing, and skin irritation. Generally sold to consumers as a defensive nonlethal weapon, it also can be used by an attacker.
In a 2006 SHRM nationwide survey on weapons in the workplace, 86% of HR professionals responding reported they had policies banning all weapons. Less than 10% indicated their policies singled out particular weapons, and only 1% banned pepper spray specifically in their policies.
One explanation is that employers may consider a weapons ban to be all-encompassing, covering guns, knives, stun guns/tasers, and pepper spray: or it may be that pepper spray is not viewed to be as objectionable as other weapons. Of course, geography may also be a factor, as well as the age of the SHRM data.
Local police may be a helpful resource on safe practices concerning pepper spray. Pepper spray vendors recommend that consumers purchase training materials as well as nonactive spray units to permit practicing their aim and discharging spray without causing harm.
Considering that pepper spray devices are legal and readily available in a form intended to be easily carried and/or concealed in one's pocket, purse, or on a key chain, it may be impractical to enforce a workplace ban. Additionally, it's likely that many employees see such devices as comforting from a personal safety perspective while commuting and elsewhere outside of work.
As an alternative to a ban, you might consider a permissive policy, which places responsibility on employees to keep pepper spray out of sight and available only in the event of an emergency outside of work.
Here's a suggested policy statement: Any incidents of workplace violence or threats shall be addressed through the reporting and management intervention procedures specified elsewhere in our policies.
Employees who choose to carry mace/pepper spray for personal protection while coming to and going from work may bring such items on-site. It is a violation of company policy, however, to openly display or inappropriately refer to possession in a threatening or disruptive manner while performing work responsibilities or interacting with coworkers or customers in the course of work.
Any employee choosing to carry spray canisters for his or her personal protection while coming to and going from work shall be liable for the cost of property damage, cleanup, or injury to others should the canister discharge at work.