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Workplace Violence Affects Workplace Safety

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Angie Picardo Most people assume the workplace is always a safe place. Who wouldn’t want to think the place they spend 40 hours per week was safe? Yet that is not the always the truth. From the farming accidents of agricultural societies to disfigurements of the industrial era, to workplace fights and attacks that happen today, the truth is that the workplace has always been fairly dangerous.

Workplace violence can’t be predicted but it can be curbed

A 1986 shooting in Edmund, Oklahoma changed the nature of how we define workplace violence however. In that shooting a postal worker shot and killed his coworkers. After that the public image of workplace violence shifted and many began to assume that the only type of workplace violence that can take place are shootings. People even refer to it as “going postal” in casual conversation, even though gun crimes are not the most common form of workplace violence.

Before getting into what experts have said about workplace violence, it is best to debunk a couple of myths that surround it.  First, there is no real way to predict workplace violence. Just like any other type of crime, workplace violence is complex and there isn’t a simple set of criteria that can tell you when it will happen and who will do it.

Second, workplace violence extends well beyond the gun violence debate that is currently sweeping the nation. In fact, most workplace violence doesn’t involve a gun at all. So while the television media focuses on the most extreme cases, the type of workplace violence that occurs most frequently is verbal.

Identifying and Defining Workplace Violence

OSHA’s Workplace Violence factsheet defines workplace violence as “violence or the threat of violence against workers. It can occur at or outside the workplace and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide, one of the leading causes of job-related deaths. However it manifests itself, workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees nationwide.”

Statistically, workplace violence happens much more frequently than one might imagine. OSHA claims that nearly 2 million Americans are the victims of workplace violence each year. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics 2011 report shows that violence and other injuries by persons or animals accounted for 780 fatalities, which is about 17 percent of the fatal workplace injuries in the workplace in 2011.

The numbers make it seem like workplace violence skews toward violent crimes, but what we can see and measure is not the full story. Physically violent offences usually attract lots of attention because they usually result in a police visit. The problem for people studying workplace violence is that the majority of it goes unreported. Employees who are threatened about work matters may feel too intimidated to report it to an authority figure, even if the threats take place off-site. In some cases they might feel that the threats are not illegal and that they cannot do anything about it.

The government definition of the issue casts a wide net, but you have to when defining workplace violence. People each perceive different things as threatening and managers who are concerned about productivity cannot ignore anything that makes an employee feel threatened.

At Risk Jobs

Though it’s impossible to predict whether someone will be the victim of workplace violence, there are some jobs that are more likely to have violent incidents. OSHA reports that jobs where individuals handle money and work with the public are more likely to have incidents of workplace violence. This seems straightforward, but it highlights the complexity of this issue – jobs that deal with the public place employees in a situation where they must interact with anyone who walks in the door and without knowing their personality or mental state.

Jobs that provide services are also have a higher potential for violence. Again, seeing the danger is straightforward, but impossible to predict. Many service jobs require an employee to go into someone else’s home without knowing anything about them, putting workers in vulnerable positions while providing a service. That includes services such a delivery drivers and healthcare professionals. There are also other factors involved as well, OSHA reports that instances of violence can even vary by time of day.

There is also a gendered element to workplace violence. Data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that women are overall less likely than men to be victims of workplace violence, and that the rate of victimization rate is disproportional to the average number of hours they work. Only eight percent of fatal work incidents involve women, even though women work 43 percent of the total amount of hours worked by both genders.

Curbing Workplace Violence

Preventing workplace violence is a complex task in and of itself. Obviously there are jobs where people can expect some element of danger, such as law enforcement or people who work in bars or places that serve alcohol, but many of the jobs that are high risk are also important jobs that make up a large part of the work force. Considering that fact, we can assume that workplace violence isn’t going to go away, but there are some precautions that both employees and employers can take to make workplaces safer.

On the employee’s end, there isn’t much they can do to avoid being victims. OSHA advises employees to be watchful of anyone they encounter and should brush up on techniques that can be used to diffuse tense situations. Employees should also alert their supervisors about any concerns they may have about safety. Essentially employees must be proactive and vigilant about the people they come in contact with.

Most of the precautions that can be taken are on the employers’ end, because they are ultimately responsible for creating a workplace that is as safe as possible. The first step in ending workplace violence and creating a safe workplace is to make it known that it is against company policy.  OSHA recommends establishing a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence, making sure to know that this covers all employees and that no threats will be tolerated. Employers must also ensure that employees feel comfortable brining complaints to management.

OSHA and both recommend that employers should have a workplace violence prevention program that actively educates employees about the things that are considered workplace violence. This program should also have in place set sanctions that are applied to individuals who intimidate or threaten violent acts against other employees. It is also recommended that employees attend seminars that would teach them how to recognize and address possible issues of workplace violence. Many police units and non-profit organizations offer these courses for employees to take and can be brought into a company to give a presentation to employees.

Being proactive is the first step to curbing workplace violence. While employees cannot predict when it will happen and employers cannot predict who will do it, having a workplace violence prevention program and establishing a zero tolerance policy can ensure that everyone knows what to do when one of these unfortunate incidents happens.

Angie Picardo is a staff writer for NerdWallet. Her mission is to help businesses stay financially savvy and save money with NerdWallet’s business credit cards.


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Written by

Keith McNeilly, ARM

18 years working with workplace safety programs in various industries to include food processing, construction and manufacturing. Retired with 27 years combined military service. Independent safety consultant since 2007.

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