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How to Prevent, Predict and Respond to Workplace Violence

Gain perspective on the different types of workplace violence, warning signs to be aware of, reporting and investigation guidance, and active shooter scenarios.

Construction worker putting his hand out to signal "stop".

Every year, approximately 2 million people in the US are victims of workplace violence resulting in nearly 1,000 deaths occurring annually.

Workplace violence covers a broad range of unacceptable behavior from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide and refers to any act in which a worker is abused, threated, intimidated  or assaulted at their place of employment.

Workplace violence, or threat of violence, may involve employees, clients, customers or visitors and can occur at or outside the workplace or job site.

While there are currently no specific OSHA standards that pertain to workplace violence, the General Duty Clause could apply and violence or threats of violence in all forms are unacceptable workplace behavior.

OSHA General Duty Clause 5(a)(1) Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.

Employees have a responsibility to treat everyone at work with dignity and respect and have the right to expect the same level of behavior from their co-workers.

Gun seen tucked inside office worker' desk drawer.

According to NIOSH, there are four main types of workplace violence:

  1. Type 1 – Criminal Intent. Violence that isn’t necessarily related specifically to the workers or the business, like robbery, shoplifting, trespassing, and acts of terrorism.
  2. Type 2 – Customer/Client. Has a current or previous relationship with the business as a customer, client, patient, or student and turns to violence to express frustration or dissatisfaction.
  3. Type 3 – Worker on Worker. A disgruntled employee or former employee who becomes violent or threatens other employees.
  4. Type 4 – Personal Relationship. The perpetrator seeks out their intended victim at their place of work.

Examples of workplace violence among co-workers include:

  • verbal abuse, anger-related incidents
  • sabotage, vandalism, property damage
  • intimidation, threats (direct or indirect)
  • physically aggressive acts
  • pushing, physical assault
  • psychological trauma
  • harassment, stalking
  • use of a weapon
  • arson, rape, murder
Man with two raised fists as if he is ready to fight.

While it might not be possible to accurately predict all episodes of workplace violence, it’s helpful if employees know the indicators and behaviors that might signal an increased risk for violence.

Particularly take note if there is a drastic change in behavior, the frequency and intensity of behavior becomes disruptive, or the person is exhibiting many of the warning behaviors (rather than just one or a few). Warning signs may include:

  • inability to manage anger including scowling, sneering, outbursts of swearing or slamming doors
  • overreaction to company policies or persistent complaining about unfair treatment
  • aggressive behavior, exaggerated or violent gestures, clenched jaws or fists
  • unexplained absenteeism, change in behavior or decline in job performance
  • holds grudges and verbalizes wish that something bad happen to another person
  • paranoia, increased mood swings, or erratic emotional responses
  • depression, withdrawal or suicidal comments
  • repeated direct or veiled threats to harm others
  • sudden and unpredictable change in energy level
  • persistent, unwanted romantic interest in a co-worker
  • consistently and/or aggressively violating personal space
  • obsession with weapons
  • excessive use of alcohol or drugs
  • poor personal hygiene or signs of extreme fatigue
Office worker crushing a cup of coffee in anger so it spills.

These situations may cause issues with identifying potential future workplace violence.

  1. Employees or management may ignore warning signs of violent tendencies because they believe that it is none of their business, the indicators don’t seem to add up to anything worth reporting, or the behavior is excused as being typically characteristic for that particular person.
  2. Workers may react on fear and incorrectly profile someone as a potentially violent person based on religion or appearance, when there were no actual warning signs observed.
  3. Employees may not know the procedure to follow or where to go to get help in making determinations regarding real and potential risks.

Ideally, there will be a zero-tolerance policy towards workplace violence that covers all workers, contractors, visitors and anyone who may come in contact with company personnel. It is critical that all workers know where to find and understand their organization’s health and safety program, including any workplace violence prevention and reporting policies.

If any employee is concerned about a co-worker, or any other person, who shows some or many of the warning signs, they should take action by reporting concerns to a supervisor or to the HR department. All claims of potential or actual workplace violence should be confidential, taken seriously and investigated promptly.

Two workers in an industrial setting physically fighting with each other.

If you are ever concerned a situation at work may become violent, immediately alert your supervisor and follow your organization’s reporting procedures, if you have time to do so. If you cannot quickly exit the area, attempt to de-escalate the situation until help and security can arrive to assist. Stay calm and listen, avoid arguing and use a sincere tone of voice. If the person has threatened physical violence, slowly back away toward a door and try to exit safely.

The deadliest workplace violence scenarios involve an active shooter, who is defined as someone that is "actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.“ The Department of Homeland Security advises all workers to remember this phrase: RUN, HIDE, FIGHT

  1. If there is an accessible escape route, leave your belongings behind and run away immediately. Call 911 when you are safe, to provide information on the active shooter, their location, and weapons.
  2. If evacuation is not possible, find a hiding place where you won't be trapped should the shooter find you, lock and block the door, turn off the lights and silence your phone. Stay in place until law enforcement arrives.
  3. As a last resort, and only when your life is in imminent danger, attempt to incapacitate the shooter by throwing items, improvising weapons and yelling. Commit to your actions and act aggressively.
A supervisor yelling at a worker.

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