Thursday, August 29, 2013

Workplace Violence

Why does it happen and what can we do about it?

This is a long post, folks, but an important topic, so stick with me.

Yet another incident of workplace violence Three dead in Florida shooting spree occurred last Saturday; just the most recent of what seems to be a very frequent occurrence around our country in recent years. Some of these tragedies are only tangentially related to the actual workplace in or near which they occur (the result of domestic violence for instance), while others are perpetrated by current or former employees.

First, let’s take a look at some numbers. These are presented by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health:

In 2011, 21 percent of female fatal work injuries were homicides. In 40 percent of these workplace homicides, the perpetrators were relatives—almost all being a spouse or a domestic partner. Only 9 percent of male fatal work injuries were homicides. In male workplace homicides, 2 percent of the perpetrators were relatives.

In 2011, 22 percent of female workplace homicides were committed during the commission of a robbery. Robbers were the most common assailants in workplace homicides of male workers.

Among workplace homicides that occurred between 2005 and 2009, about 28 percent involved victims in sales and related occupations, and about 17 percent involved victims in protective service occupations.

In 2011, 456 persons holding management positions were fatally injured in the workplace. Of this total, 108 fatalities resulted from violence and other injuries by persons or animals.

The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides an annual count of fatal work injuries in the United States, including homicides.

From 2006 to 2010, an average of 551 workers per year were killed as a result of work-related homicides. In 2010 (the last year for which final CFOI data are available), CFOI reported a total of 518 workplace homicides, or 11 percent of all fatal work injuries that occurred that year.

A total of 77 of those were multiple-fatality homicide incidents in which two or more workers were killed, including 69 homicides and 8 assailant suicides, all of whom were in work status at the time of the incident.

Shootings accounted for 78 percent of all workplace homicides in 2010 (405 fatal injuries). More than four-fifths (83 percent) of these workplace homicides from shootings occurred in the private sector, while only 17 percent of such shootings occurred in government.

Workplace homicides attributed to shootings involving workers in elementary and secondary schools are relatively uncommon, although 12 were reported between 2006 and 2010. Of the 405 workplace shooting victims in 2010, 110 (or 27 percent) occurred in the retail trade industry.

Workplace shooting events account for only a small portion of nonfatal workplace injuries. In 2010, there were 500 nonfatal shootings with days away from work, which was a small fraction of the 1.2 million total nonfatal cases with days away from work reported in that year.

About 4 out of every 5 workplace homicide victims in 2010 were men. The type of assailants in these cases differed, depending on whether the victim was a man or a woman. Robbers and other assailants accounted for 72 percent of homicides to men, for example, and 37 percent of homicides to women. A substantial difference exists when relatives and other personal acquaintances are the assailants: only 3 percent of homicides to men, but 39 percent to women. Assailants with no known personal relationship to their victims accounted for about two-thirds of workplace homicides.

While mass shootings make headlines (think Sandyhook or Aurora), the majority of workplace violence episodes do not make the news, or don’t make the national news. Each day, employees and managers deal with incidents of assault, domestic violence, harassment, stalking, and threats, as well as physical and emotional abuse that never make the news. Many of these, in fact, are never even reported to company management or to the police. While estimates of the cost of such violence are not exact, estimates run into the billions of dollars.

Why do these things happen? The reasons and arguments surrounding this question are as varied as the incidents themselves. Is it a result of our culture? Lack of adequate mental health care? The seeming small value that so many place on human life? I certainly don’t have a good answer. But, we need to recognize the reasons why workplace violence may occur. Experts say potential causes of workplace violence can include:

Work-related conflict
Personal conflict
Domestic violence
Displaced anger
Stalker obsessions
Disgruntled clients/customers

While these may be the triggering event, can we really say any of them actually cause someone to act out violently in the manner that we’ve seen in recent years? It is also important to understand that a person may be experiencing one or more of these events and never act violently. However, when telegraphing behaviors are observed in employees, it is important for us to address and correct issues before a violent situation develops.

Below is a list of behaviors and attitudes that may be indicators of disruptive, threatening, or violent behavior.

Upset over recent event(s) [work or personal crisis]
Recent major change in behavior, demeanor, appearance
Recently has withdrawn from normal activities, family, friends, co-workers
Intimidating, verbally abusive, harasses or mistreats others
Challenges/resists authority
Blames others for problems in life or work; suspicious, holds grudges
Use/abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
Unwelcome obsessive romantic attention
Makes threatening references to other incidents of violence
Makes threats to harm self, others, or property
Weapons - has or is fascinated with weapons
Has known history of violence
Has communicated specific proposed act(s) of disruption or violence


Is isolated or a loner
Morally superior, self-righteous
Feels entitled to special rights and that rules don't apply to him/her
Feels wronged, humiliated, degraded; wants revenge
Believes to have no choices or options for action except violence

Combating workplace violence is complex and requires management commitment, investment and understanding of what it takes to provide resources to protect their workforce against threats posed by disgruntled employees, domestic violence spillover into the workplace, and customer/client- or patient-related violence.

The Crisis Prevention Institute lists some tips for preventing workplace violence:

1. Assess Your Work Environment
Critically examine all areas of your work environment, including parking lots, entryways, reception areas, work areas, and offices. Is the lighting adequate? Are there convenient escape routes? Do you have a method to summon assistance?

2. Pay Attention to the Warning Signs
Many people who become violent communicate their intentions in advance. Threats from customers, coworkers, or third parties should be taken seriously and reported immediately.

3. Promote Respect
Foster a day-to-day attitude of respect and consideration in your work environment. Don’t tolerate rude, harassing or disrespectful behavior.

5. Know Your Violence Response Procedures
Violence response procedures are simple plans designed to minimize injury during a violent incident. These procedures should include a plan to summon assistance and move people to a safe area.

6. Trust Your Instincts
Don’t ignore your internal warning system. If you sense impending danger, react accordingly.

According to Dennis A. Davis, a former SWAT team liaison who directs client training for the employment law firm Ogletree Deakins, there are other steps businesses can take to prevent violent incidents:

1. Screen applicants

"Your best chance to avoid workplace violence is to avoid letting in a violent person in the first place," Davis says. Ask all applicants for personal as well as professional references. Ask everyone who comes in contact with the applicant about their impressions. Then trust your gut. Does this person seem stable? I would add that performing appropriate background checks is important.

2. Craft a tough anti-violence policy
You need a policy that stands on its own—not part of some other general policy on professional behavior or misuse of office equipment. That sends the signal that you’re serious about preventing workplace violence.

3. Establish a crisis management team

A crisis management team consists of six to eight people who function as coaches before violence erupts and incident managers if it does. Include staffers from the HR, legal and security functions. There should be a representative from senior management and your employee assistance program if you have one.

4. Train front-line supervisors and greeters

"These people are your eyes and ears, your early warning system," says Davis. They’ll probably know if someone is about to become violent long before anyone else does.

5. Publicize your anti-violence program

Use meetings, newsletters, e-mail and the intranet to get the word out that your organization has a zero-tolerance policy on workplace violence. Be sure everyone knows how to contact the crisis management team and when to call 911.

When violence occurs at work, employees often express that their violent co-worker "just snapped." However, people usually don’t "just" snap. They display some type of warning sign long before they actually lash out. It’s vital to talk to employees before they reach the violent stage to offer assistance and/or let them know their behaviors are unacceptable.

Be on the lookout for workers who display any of these eight warning signs of violent behavior, according to Davis:

1. Fascination with weapons.

That’s different than ownership of weapons. (Think Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.)

2. Substance abuse.

Research shows a big correlation between substance abuse and violence.  

3. Severe stress.

Stress is a function of modern society but people with a propensity toward violence allow that stress to become an excuse for violence.

4. Violent history.

"Once people cross that moral, ethical or professional barrier into violence," Davis says, "it’s a lot easier for them to do it the next time."

5. Decreased or inconsistent productivity.

Employees with a tendency toward violence have a harder time keeping a consistent level of productivity.

6. Social isolation and poor peer relationships.

Loners are more likely to act violently because they don’t have asocial network to work out problems.  

7. Poor personal hygiene.

These people have moved into the dangerous "I don’t care" phase.

8. Drastic changes in personality.

It’s a myth that you need to watch out for ultra-shy or ultra-outgoing employees. Davis says, "You need to pay attention to the person who flip-flops between the two."

Debrief for Prevention
Another way to reduce and prevent workplace violence is to implement a plan for reviewing any incidents of workplace violence after they occur. What you discover in a review can serve as a guide for changes that can assist you in preventing future occurrences. Doing or responding the same way time after time and expecting results is not so productive. We can just think that we can move on and hope it doesn't happen again.

Not that long ago, I took part in a discussion with a police captain from our local jurisdiction. She shared a sobering, but realistic fact. Regardless of how well prepared we think we are (and we should be prepared), that if faced with a violent person, an active shooter, the end result will likely be that not everyone escapes unscathed. Actually, her words were much more direct than that, but you get the idea. All we can do is our best. Prevent as much as possible, and protect as much a possible if it happens.

In light of that advice, I’ve included some resources (from which I gathered some of the information for this post) below.

OSHA Workplace Violence

Victims of Library

CDC/NIOSH Violence

The following two links are for a training video and the companion booklet to guide workers and employers if faced with an active shooter. Warning: While a "reenactment" of sorts, this video is quite realistic (as it’s meant to be) and may be a bit frightening to some if used in training your workforce. I’ve seen several variations on this same video.

Run Hide Fight

Active Shooter - How to Respond

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