When the Office Is the War Zone

Employers strive to define their role in ensuring worker safety

When news of the threat to the Bay Area's bridges swept through San Francisco during that frenzied lunch hour on Nov. 1, executives at Bechtel Corp. found themselves contemplating a horrible scenario: What if a rush-hour explosion blew apart the Golden Gate Bridge, killing or injuring workers who were commuting to the company's downtown headquarters? In the next few hours, while the FBI and the governor's office were haggling over just how credible the threat was, Bechtel told its 3,000 West Coast workers that they could stay home the next day.

In the nerve-wracked, post-September 11 world, Bechtel's decision is one of the thousands being made by companies that are raising a slew of new questions about corporate responsibility and liability. If an attack had taken place, could other businesses be held liable for insisting that their fearful workers show up? Would the work-from-home plan incite panic and set a precedent, compelling Bechtel to respond in the same, productivity-crippling fashion with each new scare? Moreover, does the war against terrorism mean companies not only have a higher duty to ensure a safe workplace but also a safe commute?

Such legal and ethical questions are swirling around the corridors of U.S. workplaces, as companies find themselves in a crucial new role: frontline defense in the war for homeland security. You can see it in the new ramparts at General Motors (GM ) in Detroit, which are capable of deflecting truck bombs; in the $75-an-hour bomb-sniffing Labrador retriever at Lehman Brothers (LEH ) in New York; and at Coca-Cola's (KO ) headquarters in Atlanta, where visitors can no longer wheel into the underground garage--instead, they must drive to an open-air parking lot a quarter-mile away, where guards search under their hood, trunk, and chassis.

"There's a sea change going on," says employment attorney Garry Mathiason, a partner at San Francisco-based employment law firm Littler Mendelson. "Workplaces are incredibly important as protection tools in this war."

EYES AND EARS. The uncertainties are forcing corporations to go to extraordinary lengths to create safe workplaces. Improving external security is only the beginning. Many labor lawyers say companies will also need to be more vigilant in monitoring their own ranks. Already, a higher legal standard for screening job applicants' and current workers' backgrounds has emerged--no more so than for the 770,000 workers whose jobs take them behind airport security checkpoints. And until recently, many managers and co-workers have hesitated to report suspicious or dangerous employee behavior to the feds for fear they would risk civil suits.

Now, attorneys say the recently passed anti-terrorism bill gives businesses new immunity to ferret out and report employee behavior that may pose an immediate threat. As a result, many companies are adopting background checks and increasing the use of surveillance equipment and software that monitors e-mail and Internet use, according to Susan Potter Norton, a partner with Miami-based employment firm Allen Norton & Blue.

As if that weren't enough, companies are also having to school themselves in the role of psychological counselor. Managers need to be attuned to the new anxiety in the workplace by heading off morale problems, while at the same time rallying the troops to get work out the door. If they don't, productivity could suffer and their companies could face potential legal liability for not referring at-risk employees to counselors, says Bruce Blythe, the chief executive of Atlanta-based Crisis Management International. Companies are also implementing training to deal with the increase in workplace harassment against Arab Americans and Muslims.

Of course, building the corporate fortress is expensive. At investment banks, for example, the higher costs of added security could lead to a 1% reduction in return on equity, says Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. analyst Henry H. McVey.

With the country already in the midst of a recession, the added burden could not come at a worse time. But in the wake of September 11, corporate America has no other choice.

By Michelle Conlin with Emily Thornton in New York, Dean Foust in Atlanta, and David Welch in Detroit

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