The tragic shooting in Tucson this week left six dead and twenty wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who was hosting a “Congress on Your Corner” event at a local small business. 

Senior consultant Polly Wright, of the Johnstown, Pa.-based HR Consultants, Inc., said although violence in the workplace may be uncommon, that doesn’t mean it is impossible. While it's impossible to police customers and others coming in and out of your business, you can take preventative measures to ensure your own employees don't get to the end of his or her mental-balance rope. In keeping the workplace safe, employers have the right to -- and should -- intervene with troubled employees if necessary, Wright said.

“It takes a lot of preparedness,” she said. “But you can’t assume, ‘It’s never going to happen here.’“

Many employers of large and small companies offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which are available to workers that may be experiencing difficulties in the office, Wright said. Oftentimes the EAP will provide between three and six sessions with a therapist, and during that time it can be determined if the EAP can help the worker, or if more serious intervention is needed. If a small business owner cannot afford to contract for an EAP, he or she should investigate what types of services are publicly available in the community for employee counseling, Wright said. You do have the right to tell someone who works for you that he or she must seek counseling for mental health.

“Sometimes such services are covered under health insurance plans too,” she said. “Employers can tell their employees to pick a counseling service to attend, and make a mandate that they have to go.”

Dr. Barbara Yelverton, of HRC Behavioral Health & Psychiatry, PA in Raleigh, N.C., said EAPs are a great place for a troubled employee to seek help and guidance. It is also important for an employer to have an established grievance processes that the employee is aware of. Employers should be open to employees sharing their issues or complaints with them, and as a result workers will be more apt to seek help from their employers along the way, keeping situations in control.

“Sometimes if a person complains, a supervisor will cut them off before they even hear the person, and that just makes them even more frustrated,” Yelverton said. “It’s important for the employee to feel listened to. Employers should try to understand the view of the employee, because just having someone care enough can be calming.”

At some workplaces, employers will have code enforcements that upper level staff are aware of that can be announced over a pager system. These codes will let others know if the person they are firing is becoming irate or agitated, Wright said.

It is also to an employer’s benefit to establish relationships with local law enforcement and fire departments, and create a disaster plan in advance, she said.

If a dangerous situation with an unstable employee does escalate, employers should try to keep the worker talking and engaged, so they will stay where they are until law enforcement arrives, Yelverton said. And sometimes a person will be set off by something that has nothing to do with the office.

“A lot of times, people will be upset at work, but not because of work,” she said.

Employee safety takes place throughout the life cycle of employment, Wright said, and potential violence or propensity for danger should be considered in the pre-employment phase. Employers should also communicate their expectations of a worker and their performance statues to that employee along the way, so nothing comes as a shock or surprise when and if a worker is terminated.

“There are a lot of things employers can do along the way to potentially reduce risk,” she said.

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