SAFETY SOLUTIONS: Workplace Violence
Our workplace is an important part of our lives.
Many people spend from 35 to 65 percent of their
waking hours at work. We dedicate a great amount
of time and energy to our job. Unfortunately workplace violence
is also becoming a common occurrence. Many people
identify themselves by their careers while others identify
all their problems with their work environment.
Most people think of violence as a physical assault.
However, workplace violence is a much broader problem.
It is any act in which a person is abused, threatened,
intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment.
Workplace violence includes:
Threatening behavior – such as shaking fists, destroying
property or throwing objects.
While many people do not consider verbal abuse a
symptom of workplace violence, gone unchecked, the
behavior may escalate.
Physical attacks – hitting, shoving, pushing or kicking.
Verbal or written threats – any expression of an intent to
inflict harm against a colleague or the workplace itself.
Verbal abuse – swearing, insults or condescending language.
Workplace violence is not limited to incidents that
occur within a traditional workplace. Work-related violence
can occur at off-site business-related events, at
social events related to work or away from work but
resulting from work relationships.
What work-related factors
increase the risk of violence?
Certain factors and interactions can put people at
increased risk from workplace violence. Including: working
with the public; handling money or valuables; working
during organizational change (e.g. strikes, downsizing);
pay days; performance appraisals; promotions or employee
How do you know if your
workplace is at risk?
Potentially, all work environments are at risk; wherever
people work together there is a potential for inappropriate
behavior. Every company should have a plan set to deter
and/or deal with threatening behavior. If you don’t believe
it can happen at your company, you should read some of
the statements from employees who have been victimized:
they too, thought it would never really happen to them.
While there are some risk factors which increase the
chance of violence from outsiders, most employers in
those fields (and their insurers) are aware of the potential
for danger and take measures to minimize the risk.
However, many employers who had considered themselves
non-risks have been victims of workplace violence.
What can you do to prevent
violence in your workplace?
The most important component of any workplace violence
prevention program is management commitment
communicated in a written policy. An effective workplace
violence prevention program must have financial support,
employees trained to recognize and report threats or warning
signs of potential violence, a staff trained for quick intervention
and open communication across all lines. You need
to create systems that can detect people who are breaking
down under stress and deal with them in a way that is fair,
legal and compassionate. But your responsibility is also to
co-workers to minimize their risk. The program must:
Having and adhering to a written policy on workplace
violence will encourage employees to report incidents and
will show that management is committed to dealing with
incidents involving violence, harassment and other unacceptable
- Be developed by management and employee representatives
(if you are a union shop, make sure your plan is
in line with your bargaining agreement).
- Apply to management, employees, clients, independent
contractors and anyone who has a relationship with your
company. Although it is difficult to manage outsiders,
you must develop systems to minimize risk.
- Define what you mean by workplace violence in precise,
- Provide clear examples of unacceptable behavior and
working conditions. Be careful not to limit your policy to
these examples: state that any behavior which causes
others to feel threatened or intimidated is unacceptable.
- Precisely state the consequences of making threats or
committing violent acts, including reprimand, suspension
and/or termination of employment. Be very clear
and concise in this area, and do not waver. Setting and
adhering to boundaries of acceptable behavior is a
must. If you allow employees to breach the boundaries,
you may put your company at risk legally.
- Require reporting of all incidents of violence including
threats of violence.
- Outline the process by which employees can report incidents
and to whom. (Again, work with your union rep on
this point, anonymous reports may violate your contractual
- Develop procedures for investigating and resolving
- Offer a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to
allow employees with personal problems to seek help. You
may require employees to utilize their services or their own
medical plan as a condition of employment in the event of
problems, again, always check with your union.
Preventive measures generally fall into three categories,
workplace design, administrative practices and work practices.
Workplace design considers factors such as workplace
layout, use of signs, locks or physical barriers, lighting and
electronic surveillance. Building security is one instance
where workplace design issues are very important. For
example, you should consider:
Administrative practices are decisions you make about
how you do business. For example, certain administrative
practices can reduce the risks involved in handling cash.
You should consider:
- Positioning the reception area or sales or service counter
so that it is visible to fellow employees or members of
the public passing by.
- Minimizing the number of entrances to your workplace.
- Using coded cards or keys to control access to the building
or certain areas within the building.
- Using adequate exterior lighting around the workplace
and near entrances.
- Strategically placing fences to control access to the
In non-cash handling situations, such as employee terminations:
Keeping cash register funds to a minimum.
- Using electronic payment systems to reduce the amount
of cash available.
People, who work away from a traditional office setting,
for example service technicians, can adopt many different
work practices that will reduce their risk. For example:
Have more than one management representative present
at the separation.
- Always conduct terminations privately and at the end of
the day/shift, when less co-workers are around. This will
minimize the employee’s embarrassment at being let go
(and hopefully their desire for vengeance) and reduce
the amount of potential victims available if they do lose
- Do not schedule meetings in the morning for 5:00 p.m.
Employees who know that’s when you typically terminate
people will spend the day worrying, working themselves
up and be ready to blow when the meeting
comes. Approach the employee at the end of their shift/
day and ask them to come to the office for a discussion.
- Be fair and swift when you terminate employees. If the
decision has already been made, and there is no room
to negotiate, tell the employee your reasons, let them
know no discussion is going to change the decision and send them off premises as quickly as possible with whatever
insurance and/or unemployment paperwork they
will require (prepared in advance of the meeting). Do not
let them beg for their jobs back when you know you
aren’t going to let them, this will only inflame an already
Is there specific workplace violence
Prepare a daily work plan, so that you and others know
where and when you are expected somewhere.
Identify a designated contact at the office and a back-up.
Check the credentials of clients.
Use the “buddy system”, especially when you feel your
personal safety may be threatened.
DO NOT enter any situation or location where you feel
threatened or unsafe.
The “General Duty Clause” of the Occupational
Safety and Health Act requires employers to “furnish a
work environment that is safe from recognized hazards…”
This has been interpreted to include workplace
violence. While you may think that recognized hazards
don’t include workplace violence, the employee who
consistently makes threats and then commits an act of
violence may be considered a recognized hazard, since
you were aware of the threats. Do not consider any
employee “all talk.” Many experts say that threatening
language (even if not directed at a specific person i.e.
“someone ought to burn this place down”) is a means
to explore boundaries and can quickly escalate if gone
Finally, without training one does not have a full workplace
violence prevention program. If the policy and procedures
are the foundation, then training is the energy
that runs the program.
The ability to identify those individuals and circumstances
that have a high correlation to violence comes
only through training. The tragedy of workplace violence
occurs when those warning signs go unrecognized.
Managers, supervisors, and employees can be trained to
identify and report the warning signs that indicate a
potential for violence. Training can also be used to communicate
to employees the consequences of making
threats or acting violently.
I recently received my National Certification in
Homeland Security and if I can answer any questions for
you or help you educate your management and employees
in workplace violence, please feel free to contact me
through this magazine. I hope you and your employees
have a safe and prosperous New Year.
For more information, click on the author biography at the top of this page.