Every employee has a right to working conditions free from risk of serious harm. The threat of workplace violence–whether from employees, customers, visitors, or other outsiders–is a real and growing threat. Consider these worrisome facts:
- Nearly 2 million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year, and many more cases may go unreported.
- Between 2000 and 2018, nearly 80% of active shooter incidents occurred in the workplace, according to the FBI.
- The National Threat Assessment Center reports that 20 of the 27 mass attacks (incidents that harm three or more people) in 2018 occurred at businesses.
Because of the complexity and frequency of workplace violence today, risk managers must fully understand the scope of what fuels these threats, so they can more effectively identify and prioritize actions needed to safeguard their businesses. In addition to the devastating impact these situations can create, businesses also could be held liable for workplace violence incidents through vicarious liability, negligent hiring, or insured operations and premises liability.
In this article, we explore the most significant exposures and review ways to mitigate risk with the right precautions.
Identifying the four types of workplace violence
Workplace threats – which can range from verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide – can be both internal (originating from a co-worker, supervisor, or customer) or external (stemming from a family member or stranger). Law enforcement and workplace experts describe workplace violence as typically falling into four types, based on the relationship among victims, offenders, and work settings. These categories are:
- Criminal intent. In this kind of violent incident, the offenders have no legitimate relationship to the victim or the organization. Instead, they enter a workplace to commit robbery or another crime.
- Customer/client. This type occurs when the violent person has a relationship with the business – such as a disgruntled customer who receives services from the company (for example, in retail, health, or service industries).
- Worker on worker. These incidents involve current or former employees committing violence toward their present or past places of employment.
- Personal/domestic relationship. Violence committed in the workplace by someone who doesn’t work there but has a personal relationship with an employee who does – such as an abusive spouse or domestic partner.
Businesses can be held liable for workplace violence incidents through vicarious liability, negligent hiring, or premises liability.
Understanding the causes of workplace violence
When workplace violence occurs, similar themes emerge concerning the underlying causes and the backgrounds of the perpetrators, according to an in-depth review of the 28 mass acts of violence that occurred in 2019 by the U.S. Secret Service. For example, of the suspects studied:
- Nearly half were motivated by a personal grievance related to a workplace, domestic, or other issue.
- Over half had histories of criminal charges, mental health symptoms, and/or illicit substance use or abuse.
- All had at least one significant stressor within the last five years, and over half had indications of financial instability in that timeframe.
- More than 75 percent made concerning communications or elicited concern from others prior to carrying out their attacks. On average, those who prompted concerns caused more harm than those who didn’t.
Understanding these types of clues may help employers react proactively – for example, preventive measures such as employee assistance programs or community counseling services can automatically be implemented if employees exhibit certain symptoms or behaviors.
Taking the four steps of prevention
The best protection employers can offer is to be proactive to the exposure of workplace violence. That includes, but is not limited to, adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence against or by their employees.
A key risk-management strategy is to establish a workplace violence prevention program or incorporate the information into an existing accident prevention program, employee handbook, or manual. It’s critical to ensure that all employees know the policy, recognize and address potentially dangerous situations, and understand that all claims of workplace violence will be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.
When workplace violence occurs, similar themes emerge concerning the underlying causes and the backgrounds of the perpetrators. Understanding these clues may help employers react proactively.
Review your hiring, employee discipline, and termination criteria with legal counsel to ensure they are appropriate – including such measures as conducting background checks (both at hire and on-going basis) and requesting that applicants disclose prior employment history and convictions (if legally permissible). In addition, risk managers also should seriously consider deploying the following four measures of protection, according to OSHA recommendations:
Secure the workplace. Where appropriate, embrace current technology such as video surveillance, extra lighting, and alarm systems. Minimize access by outsiders by requiring identification badges, electronic keys, and security guards.
Prevent financial temptation. Provide drop safes to limit the amount of cash on hand, and keep a minimal amount of cash in registers, safes, or petty cash boxes during evenings and late-night hours.
- Protect field staff. If your company employs off-site, traveling, or field workers, equip them with cell phones and consider hand-held alarms or noise devices as well. Require them to prepare a daily work plan and keep a contact person informed of their location throughout the day.
- Anticipate the need for extra safety. Instruct employees not to enter any location where they feel unsafe. To help ensure security, a great tip is to introduce a “buddy system” among employees – or provide an escort service or police assistance in potentially dangerous situations or at night.
Workplace violence is a growing concern for organizations nationwide. Liberty Mutual has extensive resources to help your organization develop and strengthen workplace violence prevention programs. Learn more about our customized risk control services, as well as our proprietary safety website, Liberty Mutual SafetyNet™, to reduce the odds of violence negatively impacting your workforce.