Workplace Violence

Every year, approximately 600 individuals in the United States are murdered at work, and 1.7 million individuals are the victims of nonfatal violence. Members of the public commit the vast majority of workplace homicides and assaults. Workplace violence perpetrated by the public can be categorized into two main types based on the perpetrator’s relationship to the victim. In Type I violence, the assailant does not have a legitimate relationship with the victim and enters the work environment to commit a criminal act (e.g., robbery). Employees working in the retail, security, transportation, and service industries are at high risk for this type of violence because they have frequent contact with the public, handle cash, work alone or in small numbers, work late at night, and guard valuables (e.g., jewelry).

Type II violence is enacted within the context of a legitimate work relationship. The perpetrator of Type II violence commits an act of violence while he or she is being served by the victim (e.g., a patient assaults a nurse). Industries reporting high rates of Type II violence include social services, health care, and education. Providing service, care, advice, or education can put employees at increased risk for Type II violence, especially if clients, inmates, or patients are experiencing frustration or stress. Other potentially risky job-related tasks include interacting with unstable, volatile, or cognitively impaired populations. Having the authority to deny the public a service or request may also place employees at increased risk for Type II violence.

Preventing Type I Workplace Violence

Strategies aimed at preventing Type I violence focus on increasing the risks, reducing the rewards, and increasing the effort associated with robbery. A criminal is unlikely to rob a particular target if engaging in the act offers few rewards, requires significant effort, and has a high risk of getting caught. Three principles underlie most robbery-reduction strategies: increasing visibility, reducing rewards, and hardening targets.

Increasing visibility deters would-be robbers by increasing their perception of risk. The presence of surveillance cameras, one method of increasing visibility, has successfully decreased incidents of violence in the transportation industry. For example, in both Perth (Australia) and Toronto (Canada), surveillance cameras in taxicabs have significantly reduced the number of assaults against drivers. Besides using surveillance cameras, at-risk industries (e.g., retail) can increase visibility by keeping windows clear of signs (e.g., advertisements), allowing passersby to see inside. Good internal and external lighting may also increase visibility.

Reward-reduction strategies may make committing a robbery less appealing. Because money is the most frequent motive for robberies, at-risk industries could establish cash-handling practices, such as keeping minimal amounts of cash in registers. Obviously, organizations must post signs informing the public of their cash-handling practices in order for them to be effective at deterring crime. The transportation industry could reduce the risk of robbery by requiring passengers to pay their fares with credit cards or vouchers.

Target-hardening strategies make committing a robbery more difficult. They may also reduce the likelihood that employees will be injured during the commission of a robbery. For example, research suggests that protective screens reduce the number of assaults experienced by taxi drivers. Bullet-resistant barriers also reduce the risk for robbery in retail establishments. Making it difficult for would-be robbers to flee the scene of the crime by using speed bumps in parking lots, for example, may also deter robbery. Revolving doors at store exits may also influence would-be robbers’ choice of target.

Although no research has been conducted on the efficacy of employee training on workplace violence, training employees in high-risk industries to anticipate and respond to robberies may decrease the possibility that they will be injured during a robbery. Because there is evidence that employees who cooperate with robbers are less likely to be injured than employees who resist, employee training should stress cooperation with robbers. Employees should also be taught not to make any sudden moves during a robbery and to inform perpetrators of what they are doing at all times. If there are silent alarms at their place of employment, workers should be told to activate them only when it is safe to do so. Taxi drivers should be made aware that they may be able to avoid random attacks by keeping their car doors locked when the car is idle.

Preventing Type II Workplace Violence

There are three main approaches to preventing or dealing with Type II violence: environmental, organizational and administrative, and behavioral and interpersonal. Environmental strategies focus on physical risk factors related to building layout or design. Organizational and administrative approaches involve developing policies and practices that specifically address workplace violence. Behavioral and interpersonal approaches involve training employees to anticipate and respond to workplace violence.

Some of the environmental strategies for reducing the risk of Type II violence are identical to those for reducing the risk of Type I violence. For example, surveillance cameras can be used in organizations such as hospitals, schools, and social service establishments. Other environmental strategies include installing metal detectors at front entrances, as well as surrounding reception areas with bullet-resistant glass. Card-controlled entrances and security checks for identification could also be used to limit public access to restricted areas. Waiting areas should be designed with safety in mind: They should be sparsely accessorized to limit the number of makeshift weapons that can be used against employees. Furniture should be lightweight and have few sharp edges. When employees must meet one-on-one with members of the public (e.g., in a patient care setting), meeting rooms should be equipped with phones, panic buttons, and two exits.

At-risk industries should have policies and practices in place to prevent aggression. A written policy should outline what constitutes unacceptable behavior in the workplace, and employees and the public (e.g., clients) should be informed of the policy. Organizations should also have detailed plans for dealing with violent attacks if and when they occur. Organizations should develop procedures to ensure that information about aggressive individuals (e.g., patients, inmates) is shared among employees so that they can take the necessary precautions to avoid being victimized. Employees should be prohibited from working alone, especially during late-night and early-morning shifts, when there are fewer potential witnesses who could assist during a violent situation.

Training specific to workplace violence can provide employees with the necessary knowledge, skills, and confidence to deal with potentially dangerous situations. Employee training targets the client population served, and employees are taught how to resolve conflicts, recognize escalating anger, and manage and respond to aggressive behavior. Follow-up training is also necessary if employees are to maintain their skills and confidence.

Members of the public perpetrate the majority of workplace homicides and assaults. Risk factors for violence differ among industries and workplaces, making no single prevention strategy appropriate for all organizations. Prevention strategies must be tailored to individual workplaces, and they should be regularly evaluated to determine whether they remain appropriate and effective.


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