Violence in the Workplace

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that each year, 2 million U.S. workers are victim to threatening or violent situations at work. These situations can include threats of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening behavior. While these situations can occur at any time and in any workplace, some occupations and work shifts are at a higher risk. Examples of higher-risk occupations include jobs where money is being exchanged with the public or goods are being delivered to the public, particularly when working alone. Workers in retail or food and alcohol service are also at risk of robbery and may deal with customers who are irate because of denied or delayed service. Other jobs that put employees at a higher risk of violence include:

  • Health care workers
  • Home health aides
  • Social workers
  • Utility workers
  • Municipal workers
  • Emergency responders

It is important for both employers and employees to be aware of the potential for violence in the workplace and be able to identify measures in workplaces that can help prevent workplace violence.

Verbal Abuse

verbal abuseFortunately, most workplace violence doesn’t escalate to physical assault or homicide. Verbal abuse, like harassment, insults, aggressive arguments, and threats of physical violence, is more common. While verbal abuse doesn’t cause physical harm, it can affect morale, work performance, and long-term psychological harm. Verbal abuse can occur in any work environment, and can come from customers, clients, co-workers, and anyone with a personal connection to an employee, like family members. Examples of verbal abuse include customers screaming at employees, employees lashing out at supervisors, or an employee’s partner or spouse causing a disturbance.

Criminal Activity

Criminal activity can occur at any workplace, but those that handle cash transactions have much higher risk. Workplaces could be targeted by strangers with no connection, or by current or former employees who can use their familiarity with the workplace to commit crimes. Force or threat of force are more likely to be used during robberies, when criminals attempt to take money or valuables from a person or business but can be used by shoplifters if they are confronted. Regardless of whether force is used, if you’re threatened by a criminal while at work, give them what they’re demanding, then call 911 or activate your facility’s silent alarm as soon as the criminal leaves.

Physical Violence

Workplace Physical AbuseWorkplace physical violence can be used by criminals to intimidate or punish employees for not meeting demands. It can also result between co-workers if intra-office conflicts aren’t resolved by mediation, discipline, or some other means. Physical violence or assault can be as simple as pushing or shoving but can escalate to full-contact fighting. Other methods of physical assault include striking others with objects or tools, attacking with knives or firearms, and even sexual assault and rape. Physical assault can also escalate into workplace homicide. Some attackers may unintentionally hurt or kill others while trying to harm an intended target, or even target an entire workplace, such as in a mass shooting.

Preventing Workplace Violence

What can staff do to assist in preventing workplace violence?

  • Watch for suspicious behaviors, including unusual amounts of traffic or questions about areas of your facility or employees
  • Be aware of their surroundings, especially when arriving to or leaving work
  • Always greet customers when they enter their work areas

employee working lateIn addition, employees should not be alone working if possible, especially during late-night or early-morning hours. Any specific concerns should be reported to a supervisor, but if there is an immediate threat to people or property, call 911 immediately, activate your facility’s alarm system, or both.

While being aware of strangers is important, paying attention to co-worker behavior is important as well. Certain behaviors can indicate a risk of workplace violence, including frequent conflicts or arguments with other employees, a pattern of sexual harassment, and outward expressions of anger such as yelling or hitting things. If you feel there is an immediate risk of a violent incident, tell a supervisor right away.


General Duty Clause

Employers are required by OSHA’s General Duty Clause to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” If a workplace expects a risk of violence, security measures and employee input should both be included in their safety and security plans. Safety and security measures not only help to prevent violent incidents, but can also help prevent theft, public disturbances and other security problems. Some examples of security measures include:

  • retail safety using cameraSecurity guards
  • Cameras
  • Alarms
  • Ample lighting
  • Automated locks
  • Access key cards

Money-handling establishments are typically designed so work areas are open and visible, and there might be mirrors at corners, drop safes, and bulletproof enclosures for employees. Field-based and delivery personnel will often have cell phones, communication radios, vehicle alarms, and special containment for valuables. Supervisors should be notified immediately if any security equipment is found to be damaged.

Administrative Strategies

In addition to the facility controls mentioned in the previous paragraph, administrative strategies should also be implemented. Some examples include:

  • Visitor policies
  • Sign-in sheets
  • Employee background checks
  • Employee training on workplace violence
  • Increased staff during dangerous shifts
  • Zero-tolerance policies for workplace violence

Training should include some form of conflict resolution practice as well, as resolution methods like negotiation and dispute resolution can help to defuse situations, avoiding violence. In addition to these policies, companies can also establish an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs can reduce the potential of workplace violence stemming from family, financial and personal issues by giving employees a resource to turn to during stressful situations.

Employee Training

Finally, it is critical that employees are trained on signs and symptoms of potentially violent employees, customers, or strangers. This will enable them to report any concerning behaviors to a supervisor immediately. Any warning signs or threats should be appropriately responded to by supervisors and human resources. This might include increased security and offering employees that could become violent help before an incident occurs. After a violent incident, employers should have plans in place to report the incident and provide medical treatment and further assistance to affected employees.


Employers and employees should all be aware of the dangers that workplace violence poses. Workplace violence can be unpredictable, but it is also largely preventable. By implementing security measures and other administrative controls, you can ensure the safety of your workplace and employees.

SafetySkills covers these topics and more in our Job Hazard Analysis course. For more information, click here.

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