Preventing workplace violence

By and |  August 1, 2018
Photo: iStock.com/sturti

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 2014 workplace homicides (409) were the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States that year. Photo: iStock.com/sturti

Employers and employees are growing increasingly concerned about the steady, nationwide rise in workplace violence.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 2014 workplace homicides (409) were the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States that year. In 2015, there were 475 workplace homicides nationwide, and that number rose to 500 in 2016.

Over the last 10 years, 15,000 to 25,000 workplace assaults have been reported annually.

These numbers led many companies to initiate workplace violence prevention programs. These programs promote a zero tolerance policy with respect to workplace violence, in conjunction with training of personnel to recognize and address conduct that can lead to workplace violence.

A key component of an effective workplace anti-violence program is a written policy that clearly sets out the company’s stance against violence and the consequences for violations of the policy. For instance, some written policies will contain a statement to this effect: “Violations of this policy will result in immediate discharge and potential referral to appropriate law enforcement authorities.”

Many policies also clearly address the types of conduct that can lead to workplace violence.

These written policies are often listed in a handbook that each employee is provided and ultimately signs. However, employers are also developing standalone policies that each employee reviews and signs as part of company training and re-training. Regardless of the format, consistent and repeated communication of the workplace anti-violence policy is important.

An equally critical element of any workplace anti-violence program is comprehensive training of managers and supervisors to recognize and address conduct that can result in workplace violence. Managers and supervisors are ideally positioned to observe and promptly respond to workplace bullying and violence immediately.

Guidance is crucial because it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between positive and negative behavior. One person’s good-natured banter may be another person’s taunting. Regardless of the motivation underlying the behavior, it is critical both supervisors and managers understand the mechanisms for eliminating or minimizing its impact.

In addition to policies and training, many companies establish crisis management teams that develop strategies for dealing with an actual threat or act of violence. These teams typically include safety, human resources and management personnel, and generally take the lead in activating violence response procedures to ensure that all personnel are effectively removed from harm’s way as quickly as possible. Crisis management teams will often conduct drills or training to refine their active violence protocols.

In addition to a safer workplace, these types of steps can reduce the potential for legal liability for companies and management personnel. In the aftermath of workplace violence events, civil lawsuits are often filed that allege negligence and inaction in the face of known threats. Companies that have trained their personnel to identify and respond to these types of situations are better situated for a successful defense against post-event lawsuits.

There is also an enforcement incentive for initiating these types of programs at OSHA-regulated operations. While neither OSHA nor MSHA have specific regulations addressing workplace violence, OSHA utilized the General Duty Clause – Section 5(a)(1) – of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to cite employers for failing to identify and eliminate violence hazards in the workplace. OSHA looks at the following criteria when determining whether to issue a general duty clause violation for workplace violence:

A. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;

B. The hazard was recognized;

C. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and

D. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.

Implementation of an effective anti-violence program enables an employer to avoid the application of these criteria or avoid higher gravity of an alleged citation.


Bill Doran and Margo Lopez are with the national labor, employment and safety law firm Ogletree Deakins.

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