Understanding and Managing the Potential Risks of Workplace Violence

Each year approximately 2 million people are victims of workplace violence in the United States, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH). Yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost nine percent of businesses reporting an incident had no program or policy in place to address workplace violence.

Employers should understand the potential risks of a violent event in the workplace, develop a plan to respond to such events, and know how to reduce the severity of the loss they might experience.

Defining Workplace Violence

According to NIOSH, workplace violence is defined as a “physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting.” This violence can vary from threats, intimidation, and harassment to violence, physical assault, and homicide.

While homicides receive most of the attention, it is important to remember that there are many other forms of workplace violence that result in physical injuries and have long-term emotional and psychological impact. Even if there are no physical injuries, the emotional stress experienced by employees can take an enormous toll.

Determining Risk

Employers should assess their facilities to determine if they are at risk. Among the most common red flags are:

  • Ongoing or chronic labor/management issues.
  • Frequent grievances or unfair labor claims against a company.
  • Unusually high number of frivolous claims for work-related injuries.
  • An overbearing management style.
  • Employees routinely working excessive overtime or facing excessive demands.
  • A large number of employees who are overstressed or feel they are not treated with dignity or respect.

Next, employers should assess employees and the jobs they are expected to perform. Research has shown that there are a number of factors that, if present and uncontrolled, may increase the likelihood that an employee may be assaulted by a customer, fellow employee or an intentional perpetrator. 

These factors include employees who have contact or exchange money with the public, deliver passengers, goods or services, or are part of a mobile workplace such as taxicab or police cruiser.  Additional risk factors include employees working with unstable or volatile persons in health care, social services, or criminal justice settings. Also at higher risk are those working alone or in small numbers, working late at night or during early morning hours, or working in high crime areas, guarding valuable property, or working in community based settings.

What Employers and Employees Can Do

A fact sheet from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that to reduce the likelihood of a potential violent act in their workplace, every employee can:

  • Learn how to recognize, avoid, or diffuse potentially violent situations by attending personal safety training programs.
  • Alert supervisors to any concerns about safety or security and report all incidents immediately in writing.
  • Avoid traveling alone into unfamiliar locations or situations whenever possible.
  • Carry only minimal amounts of cash and required identifications into community settings.

To most employers, the task of identifying potential threats may appear overwhelming. Breaking the components into small, manageable areas of focus will make the task less intimidating. An action plan should include several steps:

First, enhance the pre-employment interview and selection process. This process should assess if candidates possess the education, experience and expertise required for the specific position—and have the ability (and tendency) to demonstrate the desired behaviors. The process should also ensure the candidate has the ability to work well and get along with others

The employee selection process should focus on adequately checking references, looking for inconsistencies in employment history, conducting criminal background checks or motor vehicle report reviews, and incorporating behavioral-based questions in the interview process.

Second, create and implement prevention strategies. Prevention strategies include developing crisis plans and clear policies on violence, harassment and substance abuse. All policies must be effectively communicated to all employees within an environment of zero tolerance. It is important to take all threats seriously and clearly specify what is expected of employees and management.

Also, conduct exit interviews for employees leaving the company, paying particular attention to the reason the employee offers for leaving. and closely watching their posture, facial expressions and vocal tone.

Third, provide training programs. Establish and train a crisis response team, being sure to designate responsibility to the team and ensuring that team members have the skills to make the right decisions at the right time. Team members should be trained in conflict resolution, as well as to recognize troubled employees and/or customers. Focus on behaviors, not personalities.

Finally, capitalize on external resources, such as qualified counselors or employee assistance programs, outplacement services for displaced/terminated employees, and post trauma services; make sure employees are aware of these resources.

This article is excerpted from a “PMA Insights” white paper by the author and is available in its entirety at www.pmacompanies.com


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