Property management is a dangerous game, so how can property managers stay safe while out on the job? And more importantly, what policies should principals have in place to ensure their employees’ safety? Residential Property Manager investigates
Although property managers do not don hardhats and steel-cap boots (usually) or deal with live electricity wires, arrest criminals or pull people out of burning buildings, those that work in the industry are faced with dangers that may not be foreseeable.
In fact, over the last decade or so the real estate industry has made headlines in national newspapers due to cases of violence, abuse, assaults, and even murder.
In early 2000 an administrative staff member was awarded just under $800,000 from her employer after she was held at gunpoint while alone in the real estate office.
The reality of the situation was grim. She had suffered significantly during the assault, which resulted in the woman suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, her marriage also fell apart.
Greg Paterson, executive director at Real Estate Employers Federation of New South Wales (REEFNSW) remembers this incident well.
“It really brought to light the issue of cash being kept on the premise and the danger that meant for employees,” he tells Residential Property Manager.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing but we need to be talking now about what we can reasonably do to protect employees from dangers.”
According to the NSW District Court, who handed down the $800,000 ruling, under legislation at the time, the business owner failed to provide a safe place of work for the woman. Among duty of care expectations the judge cited the failure to have an alarm button in an appropriate position, failure to ensure that a time delay safe was in operation, failure to display signs that no cash was kept on the premises and failure to ensure that employees were not left alone in the office.
The judge then made various suggestions to reduce the risk to employees, including providing duress alarm, installing security cameras, ensuring workers monitoring cash are trained in processes and procedures in case of threat of theft, adopting signage to make people aware of camera operations and using a time delay safe.
How many of these are you using in your office?
But the dangers faced by property managers in their day-to-day work lives are more varied then physical threats from other people.
Principals need to be aware of the different issues, including threat from pets, as seen most recently in Victoria when a pit-bull dog attacked a property manager who was conducting a routine inspection.
Cyndi Ward, director – rental department at RE/MAX Gladstone believes there are risks with every profession, but the key is to know the risks and be prepared to handle them.
“Like all professions, property management does have potential safety risks and it is important that we are aware of them and know what to do if faced with a situation,” she says.
“When out of the office, the moment an employee steps onto a premise for lease or under management, it immediately becomes a workplace.
“So whether we are showing properties to prospective tenants, performing routine inspections or dropping off notices, you may have risks such as a slippery walking surface, an animal attack, violent or abusive people, drug labs or criminal activity.”
According to Melissa Karatjas, director at Real Estate Career Developers, most risks can be categorised as follows:
- Road safety and motor vehicle maintenance – whether the car is provided by the company or the employee
- Physical violence, intimidation and/or threatening behaviour – these are all concerns to be addressed under work safe guidelines
- After-hour appointments held in the dark, or poorly lit properties (especially during the winter months)
- Domestic disputes
- Dangerous animals
- Poor property maintenance resulting in injury – fall or trip hazards, unsound flooring, exposed wires
- Evictions/warrants for possession
- Collection of cash deposits, bond and rents
Ms Karatjas believes that due to the nature of their work, property managers are continually exposed to risks.
“Whether it is an appointment at a property with a client, or meeting prospective buyers or renters, property managers run the risk of personal injury every day,” she says.
CURRENT INDUSTRY SAFETY STANDARDS
A topic that seems to be under some contention amongst the property management experts Residential Property Manager spoke to is the current standard of safety in the industry.
According to Ms Karatjas, there is room for much improvement.
“I think there is a lack of understanding within the industry as to the level of risk property managers are exposed to each day,” she says.
“I also believe the full legal and financial consequences that directors, principles and general managers are exposed to are seriously overlooked.”
Meanwhile, Hayden Groves, president at Real Estate Employers Federation of Western Australia (REEFWA) believes safety standards are “excellent” within the industry.
“I think generally there is an awareness of the fundamental risks complicit with property management duties and the majority of agency owners take their responsibilities for ensuring the safety of their staff seriously,” he says.
Mr Paterson says that in his experience the large majority of principals do their best to comply and stay updated with safety legislation. However, he admits others are yet to see the importance.
MEASURES TO KEEP SAFE
When it comes to keeping safe on the job, the advice many industry experts agree with is that using a common sense approach, along with policies and procedures set in place is the best method to minimise risk.
“For example, property managers need to drive carefully, never speed and stick to the road rules even when running late,” Mr Groves says.
“PMs should also be mindful of the risks attached to visiting an empty property, or a property where the landlord or tenant is there alone.
“Always ensure other members of the office know where you are going and where you are at all times,” he continues.
“Property managers need to assess the risk before attempting to resolve the issue themselves and if ever in doubt, they should call in the owner or appoint a contractor.”
Mr Paterson implores principals and property managers to start taking safety practices seriously.
“Talking anecdotally, we in the industry tend to be a bit blasé about the dangers that can confront a property manager,” he admits.
“We don’t deal with dangerous chemicals or machinery, so people tend to think they are working in a safe environment.
“And I think that’s the crux of it – we need to take safety more seriously.”
According to Mr Paterson, safety goes beyond looking after your own personal safety and extends to the responsibility for your colleagues too.
“If you are out at a property, you are aware of a potential risk and you don’t tell anybody, you are putting someone else at risk too,” he explains.
“There is no set text book to find the answers to the problem but there are ways to recognise and then minismise risks.”
Vasili Hadzellis, franchise services manager at Richardson & Wrench Corporate agrees preparation and prevention is key.
According to Mr Hadzellis, acting in a three-point process will help to reduce risk.
“Identify, avoid, implement action!” he says.
“Property managers need to always be on the front foot and be aware of any risks associated with their duties.”
Ms Ward believes a property manager should familiarise themselves with the office safety policy and be aware of their surroundings. She lists examples of safety steps her office takes:
- Always take a fully charged mobile phone with you (with emergency phone numbers programmed into it) when you leave the office
- Ensure your office knows where you are going and that your diary also reflects this
- When you arrive at the property, do not park in the driveway but instead park on the street
- If there is a cause for concern, take your principal or senior member of staff with you
- If you are approaching the property and do not feel safe, do not enter. Leave the premises immediately and call the office or police.
- If you see an animal that is not secured on the premises, you should not enter until the animal has been secured
- If you are entering a premises with an occupier at home, ensure you do not enter immediately until you have assessed the situation beyond the door
Irrespective of what jurisdiction you are in, it is the job of the business owner to do all that is reasonably practicable to eliminate and reduce risk.
A defence of ‘I didn’t think that would happen’, just won’t cut it, according to Mr Paterson.
“If it is reasonable for a principal to reduce risk, they must take steps to ensure they do that,” he says.
“If you don’t conduct any type of risk assessment, you are putting yourself at legal risk,” he continues.
“If you are going to send a worker into a workplace that is not your office, it will be very difficult to eliminate risks, but you can control them.”
Legally, the onus always lies with the principle to ensure they adequately train and support their staff, have an OH&S policy in place, and obtain the correct level of insurance, says Ms Karatjas .
“They are also responsible for providing adequate facilities for the welfare of their employees. This can cover everything from suitable toilet and kitchen facilities, to safety procedures for property managers who perform out-of-office work,” she continues.
A good principal will understand that employees are their greatest asset and will have established an effective safety management plan, according to Ms Ward.
“Principals should lead by example, ensuring they themselves follow the procedures as well as ensuring staff are trained and familiar with the office safety procedures and that their staff know the location of the work health and safety policy manual within the office,” she says.
It is also the right of the principal to expect employees to comply with all policies, procedures and legislation and to participate actively in consultation arrangements as described in the policy, says Ms Ward.
According to industry experts, the policies and procedures that work best when it comes to minimising and eliminating risk all start with the principal and work from the ground up.
“While every office would have their own safety procedures, I think for a procedure to work best it must be made available to staff, taught, trained and practiced, starting with the Principal,” Ms Ward says.
Mr Grooves agrees.
“In short, training from the ground up is best.
“New entrants to the industry need to be properly mentored and trained by experienced property managers,” he says.
Technology is also playing a major part in the evolution of safety procedures, Mr Hadzellis claims.
“We use a few techniques that help ensure the safety of our employees, including having every out-of-office appointment in a calendar that can be accessed by others – using Microsoft Outlook,” he explains.
“Should a PM not return in the time expected and all attempts at contact have been unsuccessful, a great app to be used for iPhone’s is ‘Find my Friends’ – it allows for the department head or senior property manager to pinpoint a phone's exact location.
“Other iPhone applications, like ‘HeyTell’ – almost like a walkie-talkie system – are great tools I encourage a lot of property managers to use,” he continues.
What does the industry offer?
When it comes to safety training in the industry, there isn’t much, Ms Karatjas laments.
“Whilst some institutes provide training in this area, there does remain a gap in the industry,” she says.
Mr Paterson points out OH&S and safety is not part of CPD training.
“It’s not part of CPD training but employers need to be aware of what applies to them in their individual states,” he says.
However, Mr Hadzellis says safety training is an integral part of the Richardson & Wrench training regime.
“It's certainly a subject that we include when we put together our internal PM training calendar for the year,” he says. “We facilitate sessions that cover this topic in detail, taking each PM through most of the identified risks that are associated with their duties and going through what the plan looks like to avoid or control the risk.
“We also promote the REINSW training and other training providers’ courses on the matter, as it is truly important.”
Mr Groves says his property management team is trained, with a ‘hands on’ policy to prepare them for risks associated with the job.
“Our property management team is an experienced one, so they’re all aware of their work place risks,” he says.
“All our property managers are women, so this exacerbates the risk somewhat.
“Our policy is that each PM needs to adhere to the policy of always alerting the office as to their whereabouts at all times and, if attending a vacant property or one attended by a single male person unknown to us, to take along a colleague.
“Trainee property managers are also trained ‘hands-on’, so they are made aware of the risks and expected to adhere to the policy.”