The live broadcast of two workplace-related murders in Virginia last month brought the dangers of volatile employees into clear and horrifying focus.
The shock and confusion about these types of events is only magnified when you hear about the workplace tension that preceded them. When a horrific workplace incident happens, it’s only natural to ask, “Could this have been prevented?” And while it’s an impossible question to answer, it’s worth exploring and a good reminder of how important it is to stay vigilant about preventing workplace violence.
That’s why we’re pausing to revisit workplace violence, how prevalent it is, and how to effectively respond with future preventive measures.
2 million incidents, hundreds of murders yearly
In today’s fast-paced and often high-intensity work environments, workplace violence is all too common. Every year, workers report nearly 2 million cases and many more cases go unreported, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).1 So, how many incidents actually involve violent confrontations? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 14,770 workers were killed on the job between 1992 and 2012, averaging 700 per year.2 And although incidents as extreme as the recent shootings are relatively rare, nonfatal violent crimes in workplaces are not. For example, in 2009 alone there were more than 570,000 nonfatal violent incidents.3
Unfortunately, there is no rhyme or reason to workplace violence. It can happen in any business or organization. According to OSHA, however, certain types of work can be more dangerous, including jobs that involve:
Exchanging money with the public
Delivering passengers, goods or services
Working alone or in small groups and closely with the public during late night or early morning hours, in high-crime areas, or in community settings or homes4
Of course, the Virginia shooting happened in journalistic scenario in broad daylight in a shopping plaza, making it a case in point for why you can’t pigeonhole workplace violence to certain types of jobs or situations. And also why it’s so important to take all bullying, intimidating behavior or threats of violence seriously.
According to the Department of Labor, failing to defuse violent situations among employees can leads to escalating tensions and increasingly aggressive behavior in many scenarios. Frequent situations that do not involve casualties, but that can cause trauma and lead to further incidents can include:5
The concealment or use of a weapon
Self harm or physical assault
Actions that damage, destroy or sabotage property
Intimidating or frightening others
Harassing, stalking or showing undue focus toward another person
Physically aggressive acts, such as pounding on a desk, punching a wall, or screaming
Verbal abuse, including offensive, profane and vulgar language
Direct or indirect threats of any form
Oftentimes workplace violence involves precursors, so escalating situations can be prevented through policies and training. Given the nature of human behavior, however, there is no fail-safe solution. The Virginia case is particularly troubling because the killer was fired over a year before he murdered his former co-workers.
OSHA suggests that a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence is one of the best ways to protect your workers.6 Beyond establishing a policy, it’s also important to stay vigilant in enforcing and updating the policy as your workplace evolves and recent headlines fade in peoples’ memories.
1) Hire carefully—During interviews, go beyond questions about skills and experience and ask focused questions about how prospects work with others and handle stress and anger, and don’t forget proper background checks from reputable agencies.
2) Have a clear policy—Establishing a zero-tolerance policy removes ambiguity about what’s acceptable and provides you clear grounds for discipline.
3) Make sure all employees know warning signs and are trained on how to respond. When it comes to preventing workplace violence, knowledge is power. If your employees know what to do when they see threats, they can take appropriate actions that help prevent escalating situations.
4) Take steps to ensure people feel safe reporting issues—Knowledge only goes so far, if people don’t feel safe reporting threats or incidents. Make sure your policies cover how you protect against retaliation.
5) Always enforce policies—Workplace violence feeds on itself. If you let an incident slip here or there, tempers are likely to flare and situations can quickly become dangerous.
1Workplace Violence, United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
2, 3Occupational Violence, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
4OSHA Fact Sheet: Workplace Violence, United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, 2002.
5 DOL Workplace Violence Program, United States Department of Labor.
6Workplace Violence, OSHA.
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