Workplace violence is a complex and widespread issue. In fact, the United States Bureau of Labor ranks homicide as the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the country, and it is estimated that these events cost the American workforce approximately $36 billion each year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, over 700 workplace homicides occur every year. What is even more alarming is that homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. Unfortunately, many more cases, especially those that are non-fatal, go unreported each year.

What Is Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence is the term that describes violence, or the threat of violence, against workers. The popular understanding of the term is that it refers to physical assault only, but this is mistaken. Workplace violence includes threatening behaviors, verbal or written threats, harassment, verbal abuse, physical attacks and even homicide. Workplace violence is also not limited to incidents or accidents that occur in a traditional workplace; it can happen anywhere, at any time.

Factors that Increase the Risk of Work-Related Violence

A number of work factors, processes, and interactions can increase a person’s risk of becoming a victim of workplace violence, including:

  • Working with the public
  • Handling valuables such as money, jewelry, or prescription drugs
  • Carrying out inspection or enforcement duties
  • Providing social services, such as education and healthcare
  • Working alone
  • Working late at night or early in the morning
  • Working on holidays
  • Working in dangerous neighborhoods

Occupational Groups That Are Most Prone to Work-Related Violence

From 2003 to 2010, more than half of workplace homicides that were reported occurred within three occupational groups:

  • Sales and related occupations (28%)
  • Protective service occupations (17%)
  • Transportation and material moving occupations (13%)

This means that if you are a healthcare employee, a correctional officer, a social services employee, a teacher, a municipal housing inspector, a public works employee, or a retail employee, you are at a higher risk of workplace violence.

Categories of Workplace Violence

Addressing work-related violence is complicated because it's an issue that stems from different sources. Therefore, to better understand its causes and possible solutions, researchers have divided workplace violence into four categories.

  1. Criminal Intent (Type I): The perpetrator has no legitimate relationship to the business or its employees, and is usually committing a crime in conjunction with the violence, such as robbery, shoplifting, or trespassing. Eighty-five percent of workplace homicides fall into this category
  2. Customer/Client (Type II): The perpetrator has a legitimate relationship with the business and becomes violent while being served by the business. Healthcare service providers, police officers, prison staff, flight attendants, and teachers are examples of workers who may be exposed to this kind of workplace violence
  3. Worker-on-Worker (Type III): The perpetrator is an employee or past employee who attacks or threatens another employee or past employee in the workplace
  4. Personal Relationship (Type IV): The perpetrator usually does not have a relationship with the business but has a personal relationship with an employee. This category often includes victims of domestic violence (learn more in Analyzing New Trends to Improve the Health and Safety of Women in the Workplace).

What Can Employers Do to Protect Their Employees?

Unfortunately, research into the prevention of workplace violence is still a work in progress. However, there are a few things that employers can do to keep their employees safe. The best protection employers can offer is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence against or by their employees. This can be achieved by establishing a workplace violence prevention program.

Employers can also implement preventive measures, such as making changes to:

  • Workplace Design: Considering factors such as workplace layout, signs, locks or physical barriers, lighting, and electronic surveillance
  • Administrative Practices: Re-evaluating decisions about the way business is conducted, as well as providing safety education for employees
  • Work Practices: Factoring in the tasks that a job requires. For example, people who work away from a traditional office setting can adopt many different work practices that will reduce their risk.

How Can Employees Protect Themselves?

Nothing can guarantee that an employee will not become a victim of workplace violence; however, the following tips can help reduce the risk. Employees should:

  • Attend personal safety training programs to learn how to recognize and avoid potentially violent situations
  • Alert their employers about any concerns they may have regarding safety or security
  • Report all incidents in writing immediately
  • Avoid traveling alone into unfamiliar locations
  • Avoid potentially dangerous situations whenever possible
  • Carry only minimal money
  • Carry valid forms of identification into community settings

A Future Without Violence

Over the years, the news has been flooded with stories of workplace violence including everything from convenience store shootings to students attacking teachers and classmates. Unfortunately, workplace violence affects us all. Its burden is borne not only by victims of violence, but also by their co-workers, their families and their employers.

The problem is far from solved, but the increased attention paid to it and the growing awareness of its negative impacts on workers and workplaces show that we are moving in the right direction.