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May 2016

Violence in the Workplace. Rights, Prevalence, Prevention.


Agressive employees

Imagine you are a social worker. You spend your work-days in tense situations; helping families deal with poverty, working with Child Protective Services, navigating family disputes and other sensitive topics. Now, imagine tempers flare and a client physically assaults you, perhaps with a hard strike to the shoulder. After settling down, the client leaves the office and you report the incident to your supervisor. There’s no physical damage to your shoulder so you forget about the incident when your supervisor apologizes, and lets you have the afternoon off. However, you have a right to a workplace that protects you from physical harm. This includes injury as the result of workplace violence.

What constitutes workplace violence?

Workplace violence can have many different forms. These are all forms of non-fatal workplace violence: rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault. Workplace violence is only called such if it occurs while the victim is on the jobsite, or carrying out work-related activities.

What are your legal rights?

There is not a specific law that directly addresses workplace violence. However, the General Duty Clause enacted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does require employers to address hazards that could cause death or physical harm to employees. Every worker has the right to a workplace that is free from unnecessary, physically threatening hazards. Employees, especially in the social services and healthcare (mental health) occupations, are certainly in environments that could foster physical violence and dangerous altercations. These fields deal extensively with individuals in dire social, physical, or mental distress. These qualities are catalysts for emotional outbursts that could manifest as physical violence. Thus, occupations dealing extensively with people (as in healthcare and social services) should treat workplace violence as a viable threat to employee safety.

How prevalent is workplace violence?

Physical violence in the workplace has declined significantly since the turn of the century. However, there are still significant rates of violence across a variety of occupations. A study done by the United States Department of Justice from 2005-2009 highlighted 6 different job types: medical, mental healthcare, law enforcement, teaching, retail, and transportation. The statistics are displayed as a rate per 1,000 workers employed in each of these occupations. Of the 6 job types, law enforcement had the highest rate of workplace violence, understandably so. Per 1,000 law enforcement workers there were 50 who had experience workplace violence. Obviously, law enforcement is an occupation where you would expect some violence in the workplace. The occupation with the second highest rate of workplace violence is mental healthcare system. Per 1,000 employees in the mental healthcare system over 20 have been victims of workplace violence. Finally, transportation jobs round up the top 3 with 12 victims of workplace violence for every 1,000 employees. Retail sales, teaching, and medical jobs trail the others. Retail sales jobs show 7 victims per 1,000 employees, while teaching and medical both have 7.

How can workplace violence be prevented?

Training and awareness are two of the best ways to decrease workplace violence. Effective training should cover all facets of workplace violence, including: types of workplace violence, risk factors, prevalence of violence in your workplace, and protocol in dealing with violent individuals. Training programs should equip employees with the knowledge they need to identify threatening situations, and act accordingly. Employers should prioritize their employees’ thoughts and feelings when it comes to safety issues, and concerns over workplace violence.  In response to any concerns, a clear plan for security should be outlined and adhered to by all employees.

It may be beneficial to conduct an analysis of potential situations that could result in workplace violence. Creating and practicing likely scenarios can help prepare employees for a real threat. Identifying where, when, how and why workplace violence has occurred in your company in the past can help in predicting future trends. Additionally, identifying past trends can reveal areas that need improvement in security and procedure.

Engineering controls can also help protect employees in the workplace. Employers may wish to install alarms, self-locking doors, cameras, and other systems that help solidify jobsite security. It may also be worthwhile to have an emergency plan layout. This plan should consist of a safe-room, evacuation routes, and clear communication of procedures in case of a dangerous intruder.

Employees deserve an environment that is safe, secure, and free from unnecessary physical threats. Implementing training programs and promoting awareness for workplace violence can save employees from dangerous, potentially life-threatening, situations. Do not let complacency and ignorance stop you from keeping your workplace safe. Tackle this issue head on. Employers need to check with their employees and make sure there are no safety concerns. Employees need to be vocal about concerns, and cannot let violent altercations go unreported, no matter how insignificant they may seem.

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