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Safety First: Understanding and Preventing Workplace Violence

Contributor: Tabitha Aliano, PHR, HR Consultant

April 16th, 2024 | 5 min. read

By Tony Calavitta

Safety First: Understanding and Preventing Workplace Violence

From the bustling floors of retail giants to the quiet cubicles of corporate offices, workplace violence is a stark reality that, unfortunately, can strike anywhere.

And, no, the sensationalized picture of workplace violence as a WWE-style, chair-slamming showdown between Becky from accounting and her adversary from HR over who gets to use the copy machine first is not an accurate depiction of the more subtle and often more dangerous forms it can actually take.

In fact, workplace violence manifests in a wide, even surprising range of behaviors that range from unsettling verbal abuse to physical assault, posing a threat that undermines workplace policies, disrupts procedures, and diminishes productivity. And, with over 2 million cases of workplace violence recorded each year in the U.S. alone, the urgency for a proactive prevention strategy to curb this pervasive issue is glaringly apparent.

In this article, we will delve into the complex issue of workplace violence, addressing its various forms and the factors that increase its likelihood including:

  • Defining common types of workplace violence
  • Identifying high-risk situations and groups
  • Recognizing warning signs of potential violence

By reading this article, you will also learn practical strategies to prevent workplace violence from becoming a problem in your work environment.

Defining common types of workplace violence

Understanding the different forms of workplace violence can help you create better prevention and response strategies for your business.

Here’s a breakdown of the key types of workplace violence you should be aware of.

Criminal intent violence

This type happens when someone with no link to your workplace commits a violent act, like a robbery or break-in. It can even include more severe threats like acts of terrorism.

Customer or client-to-worker violence

Ever had a customer lose their temper? Well, that can constitute workplace violence!

This type of violence occurs when customers or clients become aggressive toward your employees. It's often triggered by dissatisfaction with a service, conflicts during business transactions, or personal grievances. Employees in retail, hospitality, and service sectors are especially at risk.

Worker-on-worker violence

It's uncomfortable to think about, but violence can sometimes happen between colleagues. This might be due to arguments, personal issues that spill into work, or other forms of harassment.

Personal relationship violence

Sometimes, personal problems at home can follow your employees to work. This type includes violence that involves intimate partners, family members, or even stalkers coming into the workplace.

Identifying high-risk situations and groups

Certain occupations and situations inherently carry a higher risk of workplace violence. Recognizing these can help you develop targeted safety measures and training tailored to the needs of employees in these roles.

Here are some specific situations and occupations that are particularly vulnerable.

Public-facing roles

Employees who frequently interact with the public are often at greater risk of experiencing violence in the workplace.

This category includes:

  • Sales personnel
  • Customer service representatives
  • Healthcare providers
  • Social service workers
  • Public transportation workers

This heightened risk arises because these roles typically involve direct, continuous interactions with diverse individuals, including potentially stressed, frustrated, or aggressive individuals. Their exposure to a broad spectrum of behaviors increases the likelihood of encountering volatile situations.

Working conditions

Certain working conditions significantly heighten the risk of encountering workplace violence.

This category includes:

  • Employees working alone or in isolated locations
  • Staff working during late-night or early-morning hours, such as graveyard shifts
  • Work environments located in high-crime areas

These conditions often involve settings that can isolate employees or expose them to increased risk during vulnerable times. Such environments make it challenging to secure help or backup during emergencies, increasing the likelihood of adverse encounters.

Recognizing warning signs of potential violence

Identifying early indicators of workplace violence is essential for taking proactive measures to prevent escalation. Recognizing these signs allows for timely intervention and is critical to maintaining a safe work environment.

Below are a few red flags that may signal the potential for violence in the workplace.

Sudden behavioral changes

Be vigilant of employees who exhibit sudden shifts in behavior. This could be anything from increased agitation and aggression to extreme mood swings or noticeable withdrawal from interaction with colleagues. Such changes can indicate underlying issues that might escalate into violent behavior.

Verbal aggression and threats

It's important to take all threats seriously, no matter how casually they might be expressed. Pay attention to employees who make overt or subtle threats, or who express persistent anger, resentment, or frustration towards their colleagues, managers, or the organization as a whole. These verbal expressions are often precursors to more aggressive actions.

Physical actions indicating tension

Watch for physical signs of stress or frustration, such as slamming doors, throwing objects, or excessive pacing. These behaviors can escalate into more serious violent acts and are clear indicators that intervention may be necessary.

By educating and training employees on how to recognize these warning signs, you empower your workforce to contribute to a safer workplace. Encouraging them to report any concerns promptly can help ensure that potential issues are dealt with before they can escalate, fostering an environment where safety is prioritized and maintained.

Implementing a comprehensive strategy for workplace violence prevention

Employers are legally required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)  to ensure a safe work environment, which includes adopting measures to prevent violence. Beyond these legal obligations, prioritizing safety also fulfills ethical responsibilities, reduces employee turnover, boosts morale, and enhances productivity, ultimately benefiting the entire organization.

To meet these legal and ethical standards, implementing a comprehensive strategy for workplace violence prevention is essential.

Here are some practical strategies to help prevent workplace violence at your workplace.

1. Regular and comprehensive training

Ongoing training is crucial to equip employees with the knowledge and skills necessary to prevent and respond to workplace violence.

This training should address several key areas:

  • Conflict resolution – Techniques for de-escalating tense situations and resolving conflicts peacefully should be a core part of training.

  • Stress management – Employees should learn healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress, a significant contributor to workplace aggression.

  • Recognizing signs of violence – Mandatory training should equip all employees, supervisors, and management to identify the warning signs discussed earlier and understand the importance of reporting any concerns.

  • Bystander intervention – Employees should be empowered to intervene safely and effectively when they witness potentially violent situations. This training can cover techniques for de-escalation, reporting, and seeking help without the fear of retaliation.

2. Effective security measures

Implementing robust security measures is essential to deter violence and mitigate risks.

Some crucial steps include:

  • Physical security measures – Installing security cameras, access control systems, and proper lighting in high-risk areas can deter potential violence.

  • Security personnel – Having trained security guards or personnel on-site, especially during late-night hours or in high-risk locations, can provide a visible deterrent and offer rapid response in case of an incident.

  • Emergency response plans – Clearly defined emergency response plans that outline evacuation procedures, communication protocols, and contact information for emergency services are crucial for a coordinated response during critical situations. Regularly rehearsing these plans ensures everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.

3. Clear policies and support systems

Having clear and readily accessible policies regarding workplace violence sends a strong message of zero tolerance and empowers employees.

These policies should outline:

  • Definition of workplace violence – A clear and concise definition of what constitutes workplace violence ensures everyone understands the parameters.

  • Reporting procedures – Establishing multiple, well-defined channels for reporting incidents of violence, including anonymous reporting options, encourages employees to speak up without fear of retaliation.

  • Consequences of violence – Clearly outlining the disciplinary actions for perpetrators of workplace violence deters misconduct and reinforces the seriousness of the offense.

4. Cultivating a preventative workplace culture

Building a culture of safety and respect is paramount to preventing workplace violence.

Here are some key strategies:

  • Leadership training – Equipping managers and supervisors with training on identifying warning signs, de-escalating situations, and responding to reports of violence empowers them to play a proactive role in creating a safe environment.

  • Open communication channels – Fostering open communication within the organization allows employees to feel comfortable reporting concerns or seeking help without fear of judgment or retaliation.

  • Community building activities – Activities that promote teamwork, collaboration, and positive employee relations can help reduce tension and create a more cohesive work environment.

5. Case studies and hypothetical scenarios

Integrating real-life examples or hypothetical scenarios into training programs can be highly impactful.

By learning from past incidents and exploring potential situations, employees can better understand the dynamics of workplace violence and the importance of implementing preventative measures.

Take the next steps towards a safer workplace

When it comes to workplace safety, understanding and preventing violence is paramount.

If you've made it to this point, you now recognize the spectrum of workplace violence and how to address it. And this article has provided you with a roadmap to doing just that.

From implementing regular and comprehensive training to developing clear policies and support systems, each suggestion outlined is designed to enhance the safety and security of your workplace environment by preventing any and all acts of violence (Yes, that includes the aforementioned, epic copy machine clash).

Need help implementing a workplace violence prevention strategy?

Let us help you create a violence prevention plan to align with your specific needs, ensuring your workplace is compliant and also a place where employees feel safe and valued.

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This article is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel for legal advice.