Preventing and Responding to Workplace Violence

A visibly frightened woman hides behind her desk to stay safe during an incident of workplace violence.

More than 20,000 workers a year experience injury due to on-the-job violence in the United States. At its most destructive, violence causes permanent disability to thousands of U.S. workers annually and is the country’s fourth leading cause of workplace deaths.

This violence, and the physical and emotional trauma it causes, can have a negative effect on employee turnover, absenteeism, lost productivity, property damage, and healthcare, compensation, and workplace security costs. Businesses may even be held liable for failing to do all they can to maintain a safe work environment, which includes reducing the likelihood and negative effects of violence.

It is essential that employers establish policies designed to prevent and respond to violence within the workplace. The following information can help you get started.

What Is Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence can range from verbal harassment to physical threats and even homicide. According to the National Institute for Health and Safety, in addition to physical violence, it also includes verbal abuse and threats, as well as bullying and the use of violent language and imagery. According to experts, the presence of verbal harassment and bullying is often an early sign of problem behavior that when left unchecked leads to physical violence.

What Are the Most Dangerous Jobs and Work Environments?

The risk of violence is greatest for workers in healthcare, sales, transportation, and protective services. People who work alone or in small groups and those who work at night are especially vulnerable to violence. Taxi drivers, for example, are 20 times more likely to be killed on the job than the typical worker. Working where money is exchanged or alcohol is served increases worker risk. Home care workers and domestic employees are frequent victims of work-related violence, much of which goes unreported.

Types of Workplace Violence

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health separates violence in the workplace into four categories:

  1. Criminal intent: These types of incidents involve perpetrators who are not legitimately connected to the workplace where the violence occurs. Quite often these occurrences begin with burglary or theft.
  2. Co-worker violence: The perpetrator in these incidents tends to be a current or former employee. These incidents can be extremely dangerous, especially if weapons are involved.
  3. Customer assaults: These incidents typically involve a dissatisfied client or customer.
  4. Relationship violence: This category may involve a relationship between two coworkers involved in a relationship or a person who is not employed by the workplace, but who is involved with an employee.

Warning Signs That May Lead to Violence at Work

Hostile terminations and disgruntled current and former workers are among the most dangerous scenarios in a workplace. Workers and customers with mental health issues or who partake in excessive drug or alcohol use are also often the perpetrators of violence within the workplace.

To mitigate the dangers of these scenarios, make sure employees know about dismissal policies and consider providing employees with access to counseling and robust mental health and substance abuse health coverage.

Warning signs of employees at high risk of causing violence include frequent unexplained absenteeism, resistance to policy changes, complaints about unfair treatment, and disproportionate emotional responses to criticism.

How to Prevent and Address Workplace Violence

Following the best practices listed below can help prevent the likelihood of violence in your workplace:

  1. Create a safe work environment by investing in common sense precautions, such as well-lit parking areas and secured entrances and exits.
  2. Devise an emergency plan and train all employees on what they should do in the case of aggression and violence, including a shooting incident.
  3. Engage in training scenarios under the guidance of local law enforcement so that all employees know what to do in case of a violent event.
  4. Make clear to all employees that you have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to violence, meaning that their first violent incident at work will be their last. Train employees how to deal with angry customers, and make clear to customers that violence and verbal aggression will result in a permanent ban from your place of business.

Domestic Violence Is a Threat for Remote and On-site Workers

As the global workplace has seen an increase in the number of workers engaging in remote work, the World Health Organization has reported an increase in the number of employers raising concerns about the safety of their workers in their homes due to violence from intimate partners or other family members.

Employers may be held liable if they fail to take appropriate action to protect employees when signs of possible intimate partner violence appear. Start by training managers, particularly HR staff, about signs of abuse and how to make clear to employees when they are concerned in ways that make them feel safe disclosing threats and assaults. If you have workers who work from home, establish a policy for how you are going to deal with domestic violence for remote workers.

Employers can help workers they suspect may be facing domestic abuse by connecting them to local resources or offering to walk them through the process of obtaining a restraining order. For onsite workers, you can change their responsibilities to make sure they work in a more secured part of a building.

What to Do in Worst-case Scenarios

Most workplace violence never rises above the threat level. Unfortunately, however, all categories of aggressive behavior can lead to the deadliest form of work setting violence: an active shooter scenario. For this reason, the Department of Homeland Security has established a set of suggestions that it recommends all workplaces provide to their employees to mitigate the danger of active shooter incidents:

  1. Run: Make sure all employees know that in the event of an active shooter situation or similar catastrophe they need to leave all equipment and belongings behind and evacuate as quickly as possible.
  2. Hide: If evacuation is not possible, they need to look for a place to hide where the shooter cannot trap them. They should also silence their phones. If possible, they should barricade the door and other points of entry.
  3. Fight: If left with no other option, your employees will need to fight back any way they can: by throwing objects, grabbing items that can be used as a weapon, and yelling at the shooter to stop. They should also yell for others to help.

The sad truth is most business leaders still underestimate the risk of violence in their workplaces. Worse yet, they believe that training employees about violence in the workplace will only hurt employee morale and make them feel less safe. But the opposite is true. Your workers and customers will actually feel safer if you have clearly stated anti-violence policies.

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