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Prevent Workplace Violence

Updated on November 19, 2009
Workplace violence
Workplace violence
  • Abusive partners committed 74% of acts of abuse at work
  • 2.2 million Americans attacked at work in 1998
  • USA averages 760 on the job murders per year
  • 1.8 million workdays are lost each year due to workplace violence
  • Three workers die each day from workplace violence in the U.S.
  • 1 out of 4 workers have been attacked, threatened or harassed
  • Workplace violence causes more than $55 million in lost wages, not including days covered by sick leave or vacation
  • Workplace violence has been the number one workplace killer of women every year since 1980

An Emerging Problem

Across the nation, workplace violence is emerging as a serious occupational risk. All too often, employees become victims of violence or threats that result in physical or emotional harm, medical costs, missed work, lost wages, and decreased productivity. Workplace violence can take many forms: harassment, intimidation, threats, theft, stalking, assault, arson, sabotage, hostage-taking, kidnapping, extortion, and homicide.

Homicide is the second leading cause of all job-related deaths and the leading cause of such deaths for women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1994). For each murder, there are countless other incidents of workplace violence in which victims are threatened or injured. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), each year almost one million people are victims of violent crime while working. The BJS reports that nearly 500,000 victims of violent crime in the work-place lose an estimated 1.8 million workdays each year and more than $55 million in lost wages, not including days covered by sick and annual leave. These crimes are frequently under-reported because victims consider the matter too minor or too personal to involve the police. The result: statistics that do not capture the full impact of workplace violence in the United States.

Ignoring a situation usually results in an escalation of the problem. Morale and productivity are lowered; effective employees leave the organization. On the other hand, dealing effectively with situations like hostility, intimidation, and disruptive behavior creates a more productive workplace. Someone contemplating or prone to physical violence may be deterred when he sees there are consequences for his actions and that disruptive behavior is not tolerated.

Your Goal

Not to resolve violence, but minimize the risks through prevention, employee awareness, and education.

Your Policy

Zero tolerance for actual or threatened violence against employees, visitors, or any other persons who are on your premises.

Workplace violence is shouting
Workplace violence is shouting
Workplace violence is inappropriate gestures
Workplace violence is inappropriate gestures
Workplace violence is intentionally blocking a person's path
Workplace violence is intentionally blocking a person's path

What is Workplace Violence?

Acts of violence need not involve physical contact. Examples of inappropriate behavior that should not be tolerated include:

  • Verbal harassment, directly or indirectly, in person or by phone
  • Threatening an individual or his/her family, friends, associates, or property
  • The intentional destruction or threat of destruction of company property
  • Harassing surveillance or stalking
  • The suggestion or intimidation that violence is appropriate
  • Possession of weapons
  • Intentionally blocking an individual’s path
  • Shouting or using foul language
  • Making threatening or offensive gestures
  • Advancing into an individual’s personal space and refusing to leave or back away
  • Hitting or shoving an individual
  • Throwing an object at an individual, even if it is relatively harmless such as papers or a file folder
  • Grabbing an individual by the arm or other body part, or by the individual’s clothes such as a sleeve, lapel, or tie

Identify Potential Risk Factors

Preventing workplace violence before it becomes dangerous is the best solution. You don’t want a pattern of quiet, non-physical abuse or intimidation to escalate into an incident of physical violence; or a tense situation, such as a shouting match, to erupt into physical violence. To achieve a violence-free workplace your must first identify and eliminate or reduce potential risk factors.

Violence is usually classified into three categories, each with different risk factors requiring different interventions.

Risk factors for Type 1 violence include:

  • handling money
  • working alone
  • working a high crime area
  • having valuables on site
  • having public access

Type 1 - criminal act

This type of violence involves verbal threats, threatening behavior or physical assaults by an aggressor who has no legitimate business relationship to the workplace. The person usually enters the workplace to commit a robbery or other criminal act. Violence by strangers accounts for most of the fatalities related to workplace violence. Workplaces at risk of violence by strangers commonly include late night retail stores and taxi cabs. Road rage is also becoming more common as a source of Type I violence affecting workers who drive as a part of their job.

Risk factors for Type 2 violence include:

  • working alone
  • working in a high crime area
  • having drugs or alcohol on site
  • workplace has a social or legal regulatory role
  • there are conflicting expectations regarding the service being provided

Type 2 - recipient of service

Type II violence involves inappropriate behavior by an aggressor who either receives services from or is under the custodial supervision of the workplace. Aggerssors can be current or former customers or clients such as passengers, patients, students, inmates, criminal suspects, or prisoners.

The employees that often fall victim to Type 2 violence typically provide direct services to the public; for example, bus drivers, health care and social service providers, teachers, and retail sales persons. Violence by customers or clients may occur daily in certain industries; they represent the majority of non-fatal workplace violence injuries.

Risk factors for Type 3 violence include:

  • downsizing, layoffs, and insensitive terminations
  • workplace tolerance for violence
  • stress at work or home
  • rigid or bullying management style of supervisors
  • domestic violence
  • lack of effective grievance procedure
  • lack of training for supervisors in personnel issues

Type 3 - employment relationship

Type 3 violence involves inappropriate behavior by an aggressor who is a current or former employee, supervisor or manager of the workplace. Often the individual is seeking revenge for perceived unfair treatment.

Domestic violence erupting at work also falls into this category. The aggressor confronts an individual with whom he or she has or had a personal relationship outside of work. The assailant's actions are often motivated by perceived troubles in the relationship, jealousy, divorce or child custody battles, financial problems, perceived slights or rejection, and other factors specific to the situation.

Anger is a warning sign
Anger is a warning sign

Violence Warning Signs

Part of an effective workplace violence prevention program is employee awareness training to recognize the warning signs of potential violent behavior. Understanding the signs, recognizing them when they occur, and acting on that knowledge are vital steps in heading off possible violence. At least several of the following warning signs are frequently characteristics of the potentially violent individual.

  • Making direct or veiled threats
  • Intimidating, belligerent, harassing, bullying, or other inappropriate and aggressive behavior
  • Numerous conflicts with supervisors and other employees
  • Bringing a weapon to the workplace, brandishing a weapon in the workplace, making inappropriate references to guns, or fascination with weapons
  • Statements showing fascination with incidents of workplace violence, or statements indicating approval of the use of violence to resolve a problem
  • Statements indicating desperation (over family, financial, and other personal problems) to the point of suicide
  • Extreme changes in behavior

Type 1 violence warning signs

There are typically few warnings signs for a Type I incident. A criminal usually does not want to bring attention to himself. Look for these behaviors.

Purposeful Attitude. Usually, someone who is about to commit a robbery or some other violent act enters the premises looking very purposeful, knowing what they want to accomplish and where they must go to accomplish the act.

Lingerer/Stalker/Suspicious Person. Pay attention to anyone who may linger around the premises who seems to be checking out the building, the actions of employees, or the routine of the office.

Familiar Vehicle. Notice if someone has been driving around the building on several occasions casing out the area.

An angry customer
An angry customer

Type 2 violence warning signs

Employees who work directly with the public have stressful jobs and must frequently deal with agitated or anger customers.The following signs can indicate potential trouble or maybe are encountered throughout a typical work day.

Easily Irritated
. Notice if the client or service recipient is showing signs of irritability or anger, or if their temper flares up easily when dealing with an employee or with another client.

Combative Attitude. A combative client may glare at another client or an employee, use threatening remarks, or make physical gestures. This attitude may be caused by personal disagreements or influences not related to the immediate situation, such as the client having a bad day or a family problem.

Fatigue. Service recipients may become tired of waiting in long lines for long periods of time. They may show signs of fatigue, which will increase the possibility of irritability and anger.

Anger. Just plain anger over bureaucracy or government in general where they may want to verbally express or act out their discontent.

Safety Issues. Becoming more accident-prone is a clear indicator of stress.

Poor Health and Hygiene. Marked deterioration in personal grooming habits is a warning sign of internal conflict.

Unusual or Changed Behavior. Emotional outbursts, physical violence such as hitting walls or equipment, inappropriate remarks or threats, delusional statements such as being spied on, and secretive behavior.

Evidence of Possible Drug/Alcohol Abuse. Employee may act secretly around his personal workspace, meet other employees or visitors in remote areas, or take long lunches.

Evidence of Serious Stress in the Employee's Personal Life. Crying, excessive personal phone calls, bill collectors, recent separation or death of a loved one.

Continual Excuses/Blame. Inability to accept responsibility for even the most inconsequential errors.

Unshakable Depression. Demonstrates depressed behavior for long periods of time. Low energy, little enthusiasm, expresses cynicism or despair.

Type 3 violence warning signs

Type 3 warning signs should be easier to spot because they affect employees and co-workers you interact with every day. Never ignore such warning signs, especially if the employee has been a good worker in the past and the behavior is uncharacteristic.

Attendance Problems. Excessive sick leave or tardiness, leaving work early, peculiar or improbable excuses for absences, higher absentee rate than other employees, leaving the work site without notice.

Decreased Productivity. Be aware of any employee with a satisfactory performance record in the past whose work performance suddenly changes or deteriorates.

Inconsistent Work Patterns. Alternating periods of high and low productivity may indicate substance abuse or alcohol abuse. Monitor degrees of productivity to see if there is a pattern.

Poor Co-worker Relationships. Warning signs include belligerent behavior, overreaction to criticism, mood swings, and verbal harassment of others.

Concentration Problems. A troubled employee is usually distracted and often has difficulty recalling job instructions, project details, and deadline requirements.

Take every incident seriously
Take every incident seriously

Take every incident seriously

To prevent workplace violence, every verbal or physical threat of violence must be treated seriously and reported immediately. The employer should conduct an incident investigation with the involved persons and witnesses and determine the necessary corrective action to prevent a reoccurrence. Corrective action may involve administrative procedures, such as counseling an employee or sending him/her to an anger management program, or requesting assistance from an outside agency, such the police department.

Call 911 at once if:

  • There is a threat of injury to an employee or someone else
  • The aggressor has a weapon
  • There is a physical assault – spitting, hitting, fighting, throwing objects, any physical agression
  • If destruction of property is threatened or occurring (arson, explosives, etc.)

Is additional security necessary?
Is additional security necessary?

Prevention Methods

Hazard Assessments: Conduct periodic inspections to assess the effectiveness of workplace security systems and policies, and identify security hazards. Items to assess include:

  • Workplace exterior and interior for its attractiveness to intruders
  • Need for additional security surveillance measures, such as mirrors or cameras
  • Procedures for reporting suspicious persons or activities
  • Employee access and freedom of movement within the workplace
  • Adequacy and proper operation of workplace security systems, such as door locks, electronic key systems, surveillance cameras, and physical barriers
  • The availability of employee escape routes

Secure exterior doors
Secure exterior doors

Maintain Access Controls: Public entrance to buildings and restricted areas within buildings must be controlled.

  • Employees must keep keys or electronic key cards with them at all times at work. Keys must not be on desks or somewhere in the open where others can see it.
  • Lost keys must be reported immediately.
  • Prohibit employees from loaning keys to others, even other employees.
  • Do not let people into secure areas if they cannot get in themselves.
  • Instruct employees to make exterior doors latch securely behind them, not let them swing shut and assume that they have locked.
  •  Do not give out elevator codes to non employees
  • Instruct employees not to let people “tailgate” behind them through exterior doors unless they know for certain the person is an employee. Politely direct all others to the front lobby
  • Never try to bypass any access control system. Do not prop open exterior doors, even for delivery people. Hold the door open for them and shut it behind them.
  • Promptly repair any facet of the access control system is not working properly. Examples are doors that will not lock, surveillance cameras not operating, alarm system malfunctioning etc.

Be aware of your surroundings
Be aware of your surroundings

Be aware of surroundings: Instruct employees on the following:

  • When you walk through the parking lot be aware of your surroundings. Visually scan the area, particularly the area around and under your vehicle and those nearby, for persons who do not belong there.
  • Be attentive to any visitors who seem out of place. Report suspicious persons immediately.
  • If you work alone at night or on weekends, be sure someone knows where you are. Keep doors locked.
  • If you are alone and encounter a suspicious stranger do not confront them and do not block their exit route. Act unconcerned but leave the area and report the incident immediately.

Defuse personal interactions
Defuse personal interactions

Defuse personal interactions: to de-escalate potentially violent situations

  • If at any time a person’s behavior starts to escalate beyond your comfort zone, disengage
  • Project calmness, move and speak slowly, quietly and confidently
  • Encourage the person to talk and listen patiently
  • Focus your attention on the other person to let them know you are interested
  • Maintain a relaxed yet attentive posture and position yourself at a right angle rather than directly in front of the other person
  • Try to put some space between yourself and the person
  • Establish ground rules if unreasonable behavior persists
  • Use delaying tactics which will give the person time to calm down. For example, offer a drink of water (in a disposable cup).
  • Arrange yourself so that a visitor cannot block your access to an exit

Avoid challenging stances
Avoid challenging stances

Do not

  • Use styles of communication which generate hostility such as apathy, brush off, coldness, condescension, going strictly by the rules, or giving the run-around
  • Reject all of a client’s demands from the start
  • Pose in challenging stances such as standing directly opposite someone, hands on hips or crossing your arms. Avoid any physical contact, finger pointing or long periods of fixed eye contact
  • Make sudden movements which can be seen as threatening. Notice the tone, volume and rate of your speech
  • Challenge, threaten, or dare the individual
  • Try to out shout the other person
  • Argue with the person
  • Criticize or act impatiently toward the agitated individual
  • Attempt to bargain with a threatening individual
  • Try to make the situation seem less serious than it is
  • Invade the individual’s personal space. Make sure there is a space of three feet to six feet between you and the person

Confronting Violence

If a person confronts you and you have no way to retreat:

  • Stay calm
  • Assess the situation: what does he want, does he have a weapon, are others available to assist you
  • Create physical barriers of protection, using objects, movement, and communication to stop the person if they become violent
  • Do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe

Many who have never experienced workplace violence say, I don't need to worry about this. It would never happen here. Violent incidents are relatively rare, but they do occur, and lives can be lost. A little preparation and investment in prevention now could save a life. There is no strategy that works for every situation, but the likelihood of a successful resolution is much greater if you have prepared ahead of time.


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