Workplace Violence: Types & Prevention for a Safer Work Environment

physical and psychological violence in the workplace

Workplace violence is a serious issue that can have devastating consequences for employees. It can take many forms, including physical assault, verbal threats, intimidation, and bullying. The impact of workplace violence incident goes beyond the immediate occurrence, leading to emotional trauma, lost productivity, and a negative work environment.

In 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 5,486 fatal work injuries in the United States, marking a 5.7% increase from the 5,190 recorded in 2021. Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that around 2 million incidents of workplace violence occur annually. These incidents range from verbal abuse and physical assaults to homicides. While violent incidents leading to death are a critical concern, nonfatal workplace violence is even more prevalent.

Employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees. This comprehensive guide will equip you with the knowledge and strategies to prevent workplace violence, foster employee rights, and build a culture of safety.

What is the OSHA Act for Workplace Violence?

While the OSHA Act does not have a specific standard dedicated solely to workplace violence, it plays a crucial role in protecting workers from OSHA workplace violence under its General Duty Clause. The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSHA Act, states that each employer "shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm." This clause is the foundation upon which OSHA can hold employers accountable for failing to prevent workplace violence.

Under the General Duty Clause, employers are required to take feasible steps to minimize the risk of workplace violence hazards in their workplace. This obligation includes implementing preventative measures and corrective actions to protect employees from violence in the workplace. Employers may be cited for violating the General Duty Clause if they fail to keep the workplace free of a known serious hazard, such as workplace violence.


What are the 4 Types of Workplace Violence?

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), workplace violence is categorized into four types:

Criminal Intent (Type I)

Criminal intent involves perpetrators who have no legitimate relationship with the business or its employees. In these cases, the primary motive is often theft or other criminal activities. This type of violence can occur in various settings, such as robberies and trespassing.

Customer/Client (Type II)

Customer/client violence occurs when the perpetrator has a legitimate relationship with the business and becomes violent while being served by the business. This type is common in service-oriented industries, including:

    • Healthcare: Patients or their family members may become aggressive towards healthcare providers.
    • Social Services: Clients receiving services may lash out at social workers or other staff.
    • Retail: Customers may become violent towards employees over disputes or dissatisfaction with services or products.

Worker-on-Worker (Type III)

Worker-on-worker violence involves an employee or former employee who attacks or threatens another employee. Within this category, lateral and horizontal violence are specific forms of harmful behavior that occur among colleagues. Lateral violence refers to aggressive and destructive behavior by an employee towards their peers. It often manifests as bullying, sabotage, and verbal abuse, creating a toxic work environment.

Horizontal violence, on the other hand, is similar to lateral violence but specifically occurs between employees at the same hierarchical level. It can include the same behaviors as lateral violence, such as belittling comments, intimidation, and passive-aggressive actions. Horizontal violence often arises from power dynamics, workplace culture, or organizational stressors that pit employees against each other.

Personal Relationship (Type IV)

Personal relationship violence occurs when the perpetrator has a personal relationship with the intended victim but no relationship with the business or workplace itself. This type of violence is often an extension of domestic violence or personal conflicts that intrude into the workplace, posing significant risks to both the targeted employee and their colleagues. For example, an abuser might show up at the workplace, with a threatening behavior that disrupts operations and instills fear among other employees.


How to Prevent Workplace Violence?

safety culture in office settings

Preventing workplace violence requires a comprehensive and proactive approach that encompasses several proactive strategies:

Train Employees

Training programs should educate employees on recognizing warning signs of potential violence, such as aggressive behavior, threats, or significant changes in behavior. Additionally, training should include de-escalation techniques and conflict resolution skills to help employees manage potentially volatile situations effectively.

Bystander intervention training is also crucial, empowering employees to safely report incidents and support their colleagues. Incorporating mental health awareness and providing resources can further help in identifying and mitigating risks associated with violence in the workplace.

Create Effective Communication

Promoting open communication and mutual respect between employees and management can prevent misunderstandings and reduce tensions. Employers should address employee concerns promptly and fairly to build trust and a supportive work environment. Implementing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to offer confidential counseling and support services can help employees deal with personal issues that might affect their work performance or lead to a violent incident.

Conduct Risk Assessments

Conducting regular risk assessments is essential to identify potential hazards that could lead to hostile work environment. These assessments should evaluate the physical environment, work processes, and interpersonal dynamics to pinpoint vulnerabilities. Based on the findings, employers can implement appropriate security measures, such as improving lighting, installing surveillance systems, and controlling access to the workplace.

Perform Background Checks of Employee

Conducting thorough background checks on potential employees is another critical step in preventing violence in the workplace, ensuring that individuals with a history of violent behavior are not hired. However, employers must conduct background checks in compliance with legal requirements to avoid discrimination and protect applicant privacy. This includes adhering to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which mandates that employers obtain written consent from applicants before conducting a background check and provide them with a copy of the report if adverse action is taken based on its contents.

Establish a Safe Space for Reporting

Establishing clear reporting channels for threats and incidents is crucial for timely intervention. Employers should create an accessible and confidential system for employees to report incidents of violent acts or harassment. Forming a workplace violence committee can provide ongoing oversight and support for these initiatives, ensuring they remain effective and responsive to emerging risks.

Develop a Zero-Tolerance Policy

Developing and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy towards workplace violence is another key strategy. This policy should clearly define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, outline the consequences for violations, and be communicated effectively to all employees. Consistent enforcement of the policy demonstrates the employer's commitment to a safe work environment and deters potential perpetrators.


Workplace Violence Employee Rights

While there is no specific standard dedicated solely to OSHA workplace violence, it holds employers accountable for addressing and mitigating recognized risks of violence in the workplace. This obligation includes taking feasible steps to prevent and respond to workplace violence incidents. State laws complement federal regulations by imposing additional requirements and providing more specific protections.

For example, states like Cal/OSHA have enacted laws that mandate workplace violence prevention programs, particularly in high-risk industries such as healthcare and social services. These laws often require employers to conduct regular risk assessments, implement security measures, and provide training to employees on recognizing and responding to violence in the workplace. Some states also have specific statutes addressing domestic violence protections in the workplace, ensuring that victims receive appropriate support and accommodations.


Workplace Violence Prevention Plan

Despite variations by state, there are common elements that are generally included in a written Workplace Violence Prevention Plan. These elements help ensure a structured and effective approach to preventing and addressing OSHA workplace violence. The typical components of a workplace violence prevention program include:

    • Defining the roles and responsibilities for plan implementation
    • Engaging employees and their representatives in the process
    • Receiving and addressing reports of workplace violence, with protections against employee retaliation
    • Keeping employees informed about hostile work environment issues
    • Handling real and potential emergency situations
    • Creating and delivering comprehensive training programs
    • Identifying, assessing, and mitigating workplace violence risks
    • Conducting investigations and responses after incidents occur

Preventing violence in the workplace requires a holistic approach involving training, communication, risk assessments, background checks, reporting systems, and a strong zero-tolerance policy. By promoting a culture of safety and upholding employee rights related to workplace violence, employers can establish a safer and more supportive work environment.


FAQs About Workplace Violence

What is considered workplace violence?

Workplace violence includes any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide.

What is the most common cause of workplace violence?

The most common cause of workplace violence is often related to stress and conflict, particularly in high-stress environments like healthcare, customer service, and retail. Factors can include job-related stress, interpersonal conflicts, and external factors such as personal issues spilling over into the workplace.

What are the three levels of hostile behavior?

The three levels of hostile behavior are:

  • Level 1: Early warning signs such as verbal threats, aggressive behavior, or passive-aggressive actions.
  • Level 2: Escalation, which includes repeated threats, harassment, and more overt intimidation.
  • Level 3: Actual physical violence or severe threats of violence, leading to immediate danger and the need for urgent intervention.

Are employers liable for workplace violence?

Yes, employers can be held liable for workplace violence if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent it. Under the OSHA Act's General Duty Clause, employers must provide a safe work environment, and failure to address known hazards, including the risk of workplace violence, can result in liability.

What is the punishment for workplace violence?

Punishments for workplace violence can vary widely depending on the severity of the incident and jurisdiction. They can range from disciplinary actions such as termination of employment to criminal charges, including fines and imprisonment, for perpetrators of violence. Employers failing to provide a safe workplace can face fines and other penalties from regulatory bodies like OSHA.


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The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.