Workplace Violence


By Nickole C. Winnett

Each year, workplace violence results in nearly two million non-fatal acts and approximately 600 employee deaths. It has remained among the top four causes of death at work for the last 15 years. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide.

Although OSHA has no standard on workplace violence prevention, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), known as the General Duty Clause, requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

That requirement includes protecting employees from workplace violence. Employers may receive a General Duty Clause citation if they fail to reduce or eliminate recognized workplace violence hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate such hazard. OSHA has identified that workplace violence is an occupational hazard, which can be avoided or minimized if employers take appropriate precautions.

At Risk
An employer that has experienced acts of workplace violence at its worksites, or becomes aware of threats, intimidation or other indicators showing the existence of the potential for violence in the workplace, may be considered to have recognized the risk of workplace violence.

In addition to OSH Act violations, employers are at risk for other legal claims, such as negligent hiring, negligent retention, workers’ compensation claims, breach of duty to warn, and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While no one expects to be a victim of workplace violence, the risks and liabilities are real. Employers need to take steps to plan for the potential of violence in the workplace and prepare their employees on how to handle an incident should it arise. The first step in protecting your employees from workplace violence is identifying the types of workplace violence and risk factors involved.

Workplace violence cases can be divided into four major categories based on the possible culprit:

  • Where the individual has no legitimate relationship to the workplace and enters the workplace to commit a robbery or another criminal act.
  • Where the individual is the recipient or the object of a service provided by the workplace or the victim.
  • Where the individual has an employment relationship with the workplace; and
  • Where the individual has no direct relationship with the workplace, but typically has a relationship with an employee.

Employers should identify and address all four categories when developing a workplace prevention program.

Terminations, demotions, layoffs, disciplinary actions, and unresolved or unsatisfied resolution of employee complaints and grievances have been considered contributing factors to incidents of workplace violence. Additional factors that employers should consider in assessing whether their employees are at risk include:

  • Working with the public or volatile, unstable people.
  • Stressed-out employees.
  • Conflict with co-workers.
  • Domestic or personal life issues that spill over into the workplace.
  • Disgruntled former or current employee.
  • Working alone or in isolated areas.
  • Handling or guarding money and valuables, providing services or care.
  • Working where alcohol is served.
  • Working late at night or early morning hours.
  • Working in areas with high crime rates.
  • Availability of firearms and weapons.
  • Delivering passengers, goods or services.

Employers also should consider any prior violent events at their worksite or in their particular industry and review the effectiveness of the existing system for reporting, handling and preventing incidents of violence.

Once the risk factors have been identified, the next step is to develop a plan of action to prevent violence from occurring in the first place and to address an incident if it does occur. The plan will depend on the risk factors present in the particular workplace. However, the following methods can help employers to materially reduce or eliminate workplace violence:

Develop a Workplace Violence Prevention Program. This should include a statement regarding potential violence in the workplace and the assignment of oversight and prevention responsibilities. It also should include an anti-violence statement that covers all workers, clients, visitors, contractors and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel, and provide specific information on the consequences of non-compliance.

Create a Response and Crisis Management Team. Employers should develop procedures and responsibilities to be taken in the event of workplace violence, including creating a response and crisis management team. Individuals should be assigned to serve on one of these teams and be instructed on what the proper procedures for responding to an emergency stemming from workplace violence and assisting individuals who have been physically injured or emotionally traumatized.

Conduct a Workplace Violence Hazard Analysis. This assessment should consider the likelihood of workplace violence after evaluating the risk factors and whether certain physical changes can reduce employee vulnerability to violent incidents. An assessment also should identify jobs or locations with the greatest risk, as well as any processes and procedures that put employees at risk.

Implement Appropriate Engineering Controls. These may include installing and regularly maintaining alarm systems and other security communication devices, using a closed-circuit recording on a 24-hour basis for high-risk areas, locking unused doors to limit access, installing bright, effective lighting, and locking company automobiles at all times.

Implement Appropriate Administrative Controls. Employers should implement appropriate administrative controls, such as establishing liaisons with local police and state prosecutors; requiring employees to report all assaults or threats to a supervisor or manager; advising employees of company procedures for requesting police assistance or filing charges when assaulted and helping them do so, if necessary; and screening people prior to entry into a worksite.

Effective Training. Train employees on the risk of workplace violence in their jobs and how to recognize the potential for workplace violence at the earliest stages, as well as the steps they can take to avoid or mitigate potential violent encounters. Employers also should provide training to employees on how to seek refuge, protect themselves or get assistance if violence appears imminent, and how to report and document incidents of violence.

Promptly Respond to All Complaints. Employers should have a process to handle complaints of violence or the potential for violence.

Annual Assessments. Employers should have a recordkeeping system designed to accurately capture any violent incidents and annually review the system for areas of improvement.

The dangers associated with workplace violence are all too real. Employers should evaluate conditions at their worksites and take steps to prevent workplace violence among their workers.

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