Workplace Violence - What it is and How to Prevent It
When you hear the term workplace violence, your first thought is probably an unhinged employee "going postal" with a gun.
Unfortunately, workplace violence is a much broader (and more common) problem than the image suggests.
What is the Definition of Workplace Violence?
Workplace violence includes any act or threat of harm in the workplace. Harassment, intimidation, threats, and verbal abuse all count as workplace violence, in addition to the more obvious physical assault and homicide.
It doesn't just occur between coworkers, either. Incidents count as workplace violence even when they involve clients, customers, or visitors.
What are the Different Types of Workplace Violence?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sorts workplace violence examples into four categories:
- Criminal Intent. Perpetrators commit violence in conjunction with a crime like robbery, shoplifting, or trespassing. The primary motive is usually theft.
- Customer/Client. The perpetrator is a customer or client and the violence occurs in conjunction with a worker's normal duties.
- Worker-to-Worker. The perpetrator is a current or former employee. The motivation may be interpersonal conflict, work-related conflict, or the result of a loss or trauma. Verbal and emotional abuse between workers (or between workers and their managers or supervisors) is the most common manifestation.
- Personal Relationship. The perpetrator is someone with an outside relationship to a worker. This is sometimes referred to as domestic or intimate partner workplace violence, but it doesn't have to include a romantic or sexual relationship. These incidents happen in the workplace because the victim has a predictable schedule and can't easily "escape."
Although it's not recognized by NIOSH, some organizations that study workplace violence include a fifth category: Ideological. Perpetrators are motivated by an ideological, religious, or political belief to make a "point" against an organization.
Who are the Most Common Victims of Workplace Violence?
Using the categories above, you can probably identify the most common workplace violence examples with a bit of logic. However, we don't need to guess – workplace violence statistics give us an accurate picture of who's most at risk.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the private sector experienced 20,790 victims of nonfatal workplace violence in 2018. Of these victims, the overwhelming majority (73%) worked in healthcare and social assistance.
No other sector came close.
That same year, there were 453 workplace homicide victims (in both the public and private sectors). More than 3 in 4 of them were intentional shootings.
While most nonfatal victims were female (71%), most workplace homicide victims were male (82%).
What Factors Increase Your Risk of Workplace Violence?
Although workplace violence statistics prove that some industries are most at risk, workplace violence can happen anywhere.
What factors put a workplace at greater risk for workplace violence?
- Exchanging Money/Valuables with the public can increase your risk of criminal intent workplace violence. Examples include late-night store clerks.
- Working with Volatile/Unstable People can increase your risk of customer/client workplace violence. Examples include health care professionals, social assistance professionals, first responders, and workplaces where alcohol is served (like bars).
- Working in Isolation, either alone or in small groups, can make you more vulnerable to all kinds of workplace violence.
- Wrong Place/Wrong Time. Working late at night or in a high-crime area increases your risk of workplace violence.
Many of the highest risk professions involve multiple risk factors. Although taxi drivers don't make up a large number of workplace fatalities, they are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job because they have all the risk factors.
What is OSHA's Workplace Violence Policy?
OSHA doesn't have specific standards regarding the prevention of workplace violence. However, the OSH Act's General Duty Clause requires employers to take reasonable precautions against any recognized hazard. Under this clause, employers can be cited for a failure to abate a known workplace violence hazard.
OSHA does provide guidance on evaluating and controlling workplace violence, including industry-specific recommendations. These are sometimes referred to as an OSHA workplace violence policy, but they aren't actually standards, so you can't be cited for failing to follow these suggestions to a T.
How Can Employers Prevent Workplace Violence?
Employers – especially in workplaces with greater risk of violence – should attack the problem of potential workplace violence from multiple angles. OSHA recommends a combination of workplace violence prevention policy, engineering controls, administrative controls, and training.
Prevent Workplace Violence with a Zero Tolerance Policy
A zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence needs to impose consequences for threatening or violent behavior, not just for workers, but also for customers, clients, patients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who comes in contact with workers on the job.
However, a zero-tolerance policy isn't just about what happens to someone who commits workplace violence. A key component is encouraging open lines of communication.
Employees should be required to report incidents, but they also need to know they can do so without fear of reprisal. Your written policy should be specific and clear about what kinds of behavior must be reported, but you should encourage them to raise their concerns if they experience something outside those bounds.
Additionally, don't limit your employees to reporting things that have already happened. Make it clear they should report situations where they feel at risk so that precautions can be put in place. Employees should know that they're not expected to put themselves in risky situations and they won't be penalized for refusal.
The most important part of your zero-tolerance policy is your follow-through. You need to put together a threat assessment team and a system for documenting their activity. You also need systems for prevention: a worksite analysis for potential risk factors, as well as screening procedures for workers (and clients, where applicable).
Employees must know that you will investigate and hand out consequences as promised – inaction on your part will lead to silence and distrust on theirs. It may also lead to escalating behavior on the part of the perpetrator.
Prevent Workplace Violence with Security Measures
Controlling access to cash or other valuable items (and adding signage to that effect) can reduce the likelihood of violence from criminal intent.
You need to assess the necessary precautions on a business by business basis. It might be as simple as limiting the amount of cash on hand, especially at night. Or it might involve alarm systems, ID badges, electronic keys, or guards.
However, the ultimate goal for security measures must be protecting your people, not property. When all theft prevention measures fail, make it clear that workers should cooperate during a robbery rather than risking their own safety.
You also need policies in place regarding the flow of information about coworkers. Innocent-sounding questions about someone's shift or whereabouts can open the door to personal relationship violence.
Prevent Workplace Violence with Buddy or Check-in Systems
All employers should be on the lookout for moments where their employees could have increased vulnerability – walking alone to their car in a dark parking lot, for example, or spending time in an isolated storage area.
You can mitigate risks like this with video surveillance, extra lighting, or buddy system policies.
But some jobs, by their very nature, involve a high degree of isolation and exposure to dangerous people or circumstances. These are some of the most at-risk professions for workplace violence: home healthcare workers, social workers, and delivery/transportation professionals.
In these cases, employers need to develop robust safety nets for their employees. Keep vehicles well-maintained and have an emergency breakdown plan. Assign a work phone to every employee with good cellular coverage where they will be. They should also have hand-held alarms or noise devices to attract attention in an emergency. Employees should be required to keep a contact person apprised of their location, checking in and checking out throughout their shift.
Prevent Workplace Violence with Workplace Violence Training
Employers need to provide workers with a cohesive written workplace violence policy, but more importantly, workers need training on how to apply and use that policy every day.
First, workers need a general understanding of the scope and nature of workplace violence – how to recognize the warning signs and prevent workplace violence from occurring. You don't have to invent this training from scratch. You can use an existing online workplace violence prevention training based on OSHA workplace violence policy.
Second, workers need to be trained in your specific procedures, precautions, and policies. This will be different for every workplace, but be sure you cover reporting protocols, security measures, and what they can expect from you after an incident.
Eliminating workplace violence is probably impossible, but by developing clear policies, taking appropriate precautions, educating your entire team, and following through on your promises, you can make your work environment as safe for everyone as it can be.
Employers don't just have a moral obligation to do so. It's also their responsibility to ensure their workers' occupational safety and health.