Color-Changing Wrist Bands and "Panic Buttons” – Can They Defend Against Sexual Harassment?

Two years ago I wrote that sexual harassers need not be co-employees or managers of a harassed employee. They can be outside vendors, clients, customers etc.  The point is not who is doing the harassing, but if a hostile work environment has been created which the employer must remedy.

At that time a news item from Seattle caught my eye: it was another  illustration of this point – and included a possible way to accommodate the allegedly harassed workers.

“Panic buttons.”


A union local representing 5,000 hotel and hospitality workers in Seattle, reacting to guests sexually harassing room cleaning and room service staff. If the number of charges filed is any indication, sexual harassment is rife in the industry.  Think about it – they are the quintessential vulnerable workers: isolated and powerless.

One woman said that “I’m scared because it’s not safe.”  The article noted that “[s]he said she has had multiple run-ins with men who crossed the line while she was on the job. In one instance, she went alone on a room service call. ‘He opened the door and he is naked,’ she said.”

The Seattle local  started a signature drive to get a wide range of protections on the upcoming ballot, and initiative 124 passed in November 2016. Basically, it requires, among other things, that hotels with 60 or more rooms must issue “panic buttons” to employees who work alone in guest rooms. Interesting, and maybe the answer to guests taking advantage of these isolated and vulnerable employees.

Similar laws or ordinances have since passed throughout the US: Chicago, Sacramento, Long Beach, CA and Miami Beach. And panic buttons have also been the subject of collective bargaining agreements.

Are these laws still necessary, given the seeming gains of the #MeToo movement?

Oh, yeah. No question.

The EEOC recently sued a restaurant in Buffalo for allegedly subjecting female employees to sexual harassment, after the “restaurant’s owner, president and general manager, made unwelcome sexual advances and comments to female employees, including requests for sex; repeated invitations for drinks, dinner and sharing a hotel room; and comments about the bodies of female employees and customers.”

He is also alleged to have “engaged in inappropriate contact with female employees, including grabbing their buttocks, kissing them, and routinely brushing up against them. … [and] also displayed pornography at work in view of employees and sent a group text to employees with pornography in the background.”

The EEOC also alleges that the restaurant “discharged female employees who objected to [his] conduct or rejected his advances, and that other female employees quit because they could no longer endure the hostile work environment.”

Pretty serious stuff.

But not quite panic button territory since the alleged harassers were the bosses! And the waitresses, although certainly vulnerable, were not isolated such that panic buttons would’ve been helpful.

But the point is that workplace sexual harassment shows no evidence that it is slowing down.  And many folks are trying to create ways to defend against it.

The EEOC also sued an automotive parts company for allegedly subjecting a class of female employees in Florida store to sexual harassment. One female employee was allegedly retaliated against and forced to quit.

Allegedly a supervisor and other male employees subjected female employees “ma[de] sexually charged comments. … [which] included asking women for oral sex and telling them to bend over. The supervisor allegedly “grabbed female employees on the buttocks, pinned them to tables, and brushed up against them in stock aisles.”

The EEOC charged that complaining female employees suffered laughter by managers and retaliation.

Again, panic buttons would likely not have been of much assistance but these women in traditionally male-dominated industries have seen no decrease in instances of sexual harassment.

For isolated vulnerable female workers who are subject to harassment by non-employees panic buttons may help, but I’d like to see some research as to their effectiveness.

But for those who are harassed by supervisors or other employees quite in the open and/or for those workplaces where such complaints fall on deaf ears, I’m afraid that even air horns and sirens would not be loud enough.

Oh, I almost forgot about the color-changing wrist bands!

Seems that an Edinburgh university student created a sort of similar device to the panic button but not necessarily for vulnerable workers – it’s designed for people going out at night.  It is a color-changing wristband which she calls “Lux” which, along with a synched smartphone app:

“allows the wearer to send a distress signal if they find themselves in a threatening or intimidating situation. The device works by linking to the app, which friends can join before heading out and staff can join on arrival. Tapping the wristband once will trigger an alert to friends and double tapping will make the wristband light up and send a signal to bar and nightclub staff.”

Great idea, huh?

No reason why these can’t be used or adapted for the workplace!

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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]