Workplace violence is not something most people associate with occupational health and safety. But with some two million American workers falling victim to it each year, workplace violence is one of the largest contributors to work-related death and a growing concern among employees and employers alike. Workplace homicide is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that of the 4,679 workplace fatalities that occurred in the U.S. in 2014, an astounding 403 were workplace homicides.

Workplace violence manifests in various ways, and it’s important for employers to have a clear plan in place for how to prevent it from occurring and how to respond to it when it does.

Workplace Violence Takes Many Forms

Identifying workplace violence requires understanding the many shapes it can take. OSHA defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” As this definition shows, workplace violence can run the gamut from threats and verbal abuse to physical assault, homicide, and even terrorism.

Workplace violence isn’t just limited to employees, but can affect clients, customers, and visitors to a business as well. It can also occur outside the bounds of a traditional workplace, such as off-site functions like conferences and trade shows, work-related social events, in a client's home or place of business, or even in your own home (if, for example, you receive a threatening phone call from a client).

Risk Factors for Workplace Violence

While no one is immune and incidents can happen at any time, some workers are at increased risk for experiencing workplace violence. Those at higher risk include:

  • Workers who exchange money with the public
  • Workers who deliver passengers, goods, or services
  • Those who work alone or in small groups
  • Late-night or early-morning shift workers
  • Workers in high-crime areas
  • Those who work in community settings or homes and have extensive contact with the public

These risk factors make certain jobs a higher risk for workplace violence, including:

  • Healthcare workers (visiting nurses, psychiatric evaluators)
  • Social service workers (probation officers, child protective services workers)
  • Community workers (gas and utility technicians, phone and cable television installers)
  • Letter carriers
  • Retail workers
  • Taxi drivers

Workplace Conflict Is Not the Same as Workplace Violence

It's important to draw a distinction between workplace conflict and workplace violence. Workers can experience conflict with a co-worker, a boss, or a customer, but unless they display disruptive, threatening, or abusive conduct it does not rise to the level of violence.

However, for the safety of your employees, it is important to take workplace conflict seriously. Many instances of workplace violence begin as conflict, and if no steps are taken to resolve conflict in a prompt manner, they may escalate into violence (learn more about Workplace Bullying: An Act of War Threatening the Health and Safety of Your Employees).

Developing an Action Plan

The single most important thing you can do to deal with this issue as an employer is to develop an action plan to prevent and, when necessary, address workplace violence. Having a written policy ensures that employees know and understand their rights and responsibilities when it comes to workplace conduct. It also means that when issues do arise, there is a formal procedure in place to deal with them.

Your workplace violence prevention plan can be a standalone program or incorporated into your existing accident prevention program, employee handbook, or operating procedures. It should clearly lay out what constitutes an act of violence and the kinds of verbal and physical actions the policy covers. It should, moreover, clearly indicate the roles and responsibilities of employers, supervisors, workers, and anyone affiliated with the organization.

Here are some steps to help you implement a workplace violence prevention plan.

Institute a Zero Tolerance Policy

One of the most effective prevention methods is the introduction of a zero tolerance policy against violence by or against an employee.

A zero tolerance policy sends a very clear message to all of your employees that violence is a serious matter and will be treated seriously if it should ever occur. It also shows that you will not condone the smaller acts of aggression that can escalate into more harmful conduct.

A zero tolerance policy, moreover, does not leave room for interpretation. This gives the members of your workforce fewer opportunities to rationalize or justify acts of violence.

Assess and Address Risk Factors

Each workplace will have its unique set of risk factors. For some, it could be isolated workspaces, others may have substantial amounts of petty cash, while others still might involve meeting complete strangers on a consistent basis.


Identify the risks that pertain to your business and brainstorm ways to minimize them. This could include modifying the workplace design, altering administrative practices, or encouraging work practices that reduce the risk of experiencing violence.

Identify Pre-Attack Cues

Knowing the warning signs of violence can help you stop a violent act before it occurs. Take note if you recognize any of the following:

  • A change in patterns of behavior
  • The frequency and intensity of conduct that is disruptive to the work environment
  • Crying, sulking, or temper tantrums
  • Excessive absenteeism or frequently showing up late
  • Pushing the boundaries of acceptable conduct or disregard for the safety of others
  • Disrespect for authority
  • Decrease in work quality
  • Swearing or emotional language
  • Making inappropriate statements
  • Blaming others for mistakes
  • Complaints of unfair personal treatment
  • Mentioning the same problems repeatedly without resolving them
  • Holding grudges, especially against supervisor; verbalizing hope that something bad happens to the recipient of the grudge

While it’s nearly impossible to know exactly when someone will become violent, these behaviors indicate that they may be experiencing high levels of stress, which could lead to a violent outburst or incident (for more on stress in the workplace, see Managing Employee Burnout to Reduce Deadly Accidents).

Other warning signs of potential violence include:

  • A history of violence
  • Threatening or intimidating behavior
  • An increase in personal stress
  • Marked changes in mood and behavior
  • Social isolation.

Watch for Deviations from the Norm

An important part of identifying the potential for workplace violence before it occurs is taking note of deviations from the norm. Of course, identifying changes in a person’s conduct requires knowing them fairly well. Managers can take an active role in preventing workplace violence by having frequent one-on-one check-ins with their employees, during which they can assess stress levels and take note of any changes in behavior or attitude since the last check-in.

Education is Key

Teaching employees about unacceptable workplace conduct and violence risk factors will help them identify, avoid, and defuse potentially violent situations. It’s critical that every employee understands the policy and is assured that any and all claims of workplace violence will be investigated and resolved immediately.

Staff training sessions can promote workplace safety education, while regular team meetings allow employees to voice their concerns and ask any questions they may have. Training should include information about the company policy on workplace violence, risk factors, strategies to identify and avoid potentially violent situations, and clear examples of what is and is not considered workplace violence.

It’s also imperative that every employee understands that they have the right to refuse unsafe work without the fear of being penalized (find out How to Refuse Unsafe Work).

Workplace Safety Starts from the Top

Company leaders and management play critical roles in creating a workplace culture that makes safety a priority, including the prevention of workplace violence. It's important for organizational leadership to not only act on this matter but to also effectively communicate this to all staff. Workers are more likely to report incidents involving violence when they know that management is committed to dealing with them.

There are a variety of ways corporate leaders can take an active role:

  • Holding regular workplace safety and violence prevention training sessions
  • Creating an open-door policy so employees feel comfortable communicating concerns
  • Making workplace violence policies and training documents readily accessible for all employees
  • Assessing workplace risk factors and proactively addressing them (for example, by installing video surveillance, equipping field staff with handheld alarms, or introducing a buddy system)
  • Holding frequent one-on-one check-ins with each employee and addressing any concerns that come up

Conclusion

Preventing workplace violence is everyone’s responsibility. While there are currently no specific OSHA standards for workplace violence, employers are encouraged to develop comprehensive workplace violence policies and communicate them to all employees. OSHA also recommends that employers regularly assess risks and provide employee training to reduce the incidence of violence in the workplace.