A Guide to Preventing and Dealing with Workplace Violence

A Guide to Preventing and Dealing with Workplace Violence

A global study conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), Lloyd’s Register Foundation (LRF) and Gallup found that more than one in five employees have experienced workplace violence and harassment, translating to 750 million workers worldwide. Of these, one in ten workers (nearly 280 million) experienced physical violence such as hitting, restraining or spitting. 

These staggering figures expose dark and underlying truths – workplace violence is a pervasive issue impacting organizations globally. It’s a major concern for both employers and employees, creating a shadow of fear and anxiety that can cripple productivity and morale.

This guide serves as a comprehensive resource for understanding, preventing and responding effectively to workplace violence. It defines the term, explores the various forms it can take and identifies the warning signs that could indicate an impending incident. The causes and impacts of workplace violence are also examined, providing valuable insights for prevention strategies.

By understanding and addressing workplace violence, organizations can create a more positive and productive work experience for their employees.

What is workplace violence?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related violence as “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work”. Similarly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines it as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site”. While definitions can vary, it’s important to recognise that workplace violence must be connected with work activities. It can present in many different forms, including threatening behavior such as destroying property and throwing items, verbal abuse, expressing intent to inflict harm as both written and verbal threats, and physical attacks.

Unfortunately, such violence in the workplace can range from minor threats to serious physical assault, stemming from various sources such as coworkers and colleagues through to clients and customers.

What types of workplace violence are there?

According to occupational health research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), in most circumstances, workplace violence can be classified into four primary categories.

Type 1: Criminal intent
Here, the perpetrator has no legitimate connection to the employee or the workplace. They are there to commit a crime. Often the primary motive is theft, with violence erupting during a robbery, shoplifting incident or trespassing situation. For instance, a long-haul truck driver delivering pharmaceuticals to a rural pharmacy, or transporting other high-value products, could be targeted for a hijacking that turns violent.

The National Freight and Cargo Crime Analysis Report for 2022 shows the UK saw 5,086 reports of HGV and cargo crime, costing the industry an estimated £68.6 million from thefts alone, while, in data published by its federal government, Mexico logged 7,862 violent cargo hijackings in 2023, up by 3% from 2022. Although such acts of workplace violence may be more prevalent in certain regions, risks across many sectors are present.

Type 2: Customer/client
This occurs when a client or customer interacting with the organization, or using its services, becomes aggressive or violent. It can be triggered as a result of dissatisfaction with the service, products or wait times, or the message being communicated. This can be more common in retail, hospitality or healthcare settings; however, industrial sectors are not immune, particularly those dealing with frustrated clients or potentially hazardous materials. 

Consider an engineer required to make a call-out alone for an oil and gas company. They might face threats or even physical assault from an angry client upset about repairs being required, pricing or service changes. Many workers in other industries could also face similar situations. Around 150 lone workers are attacked in the UK every day, according to figures from the British Safety Council. This includes both physical and verbal assault. That is 54,750 lone workers being attacked every year. 

Type 3: Worker-on-worker
This involves employees attacking or threatening members of their team or other colleagues. This type of workplace violence can start with verbal abuse, bullying and intimidation, and can quickly escalate into physical altercations in some instances. Fast-paced environments, high-pressure demands and toxic workplace culture can be a breeding ground for this type of workplace violence.

Imagine a high-pressure building site with conditions that continue to fluctuate: a construction site supervisor might face ongoing verbal abuse or threats from a crew member frustrated with workload or safety protocols. If this isn’t resolved through effective communication quickly, it can rapidly escalate and also lead to physical abuse. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that almost 9% of all workplace fatalities in the US were caused by workplace violence, the construction industry accounted for 56 of the 971 deaths.

Type 4: Personal relationship
The final category is personal relationship. In this instance, the perpetrator may not have any connection with the organization. The violence stems from an employee having a relationship that becomes volatile, extending into the workplace. At times, this can be a complex situation, better known as domestic violence spillover. The perpetrator, often a current or former partner, may target the employee at work through stalking, harassment, threats or even physical assault. 

Industrial workplaces, with their potentially isolated areas and shift work schedules, can create vulnerabilities for employees experiencing domestic violence. Imagine a factory worker being followed to their car by a jealous ex-partner after a late shift. It’s estimated that, in the US alone, 33% of women killed in the workplace were killed by someone they knew, with the majority of these being an intimate partner. Over half of these workplace homicides occurred in car parks and public buildings.


The heightened risk of workplace violence to lone workers

The factors that categorize lone workers, such as working in isolated areas and lack of immediate support, expose these workers to a significantly greater risk of workplace violence across all categories. Public-facing roles present a particular challenge. Delivery drivers in remote areas, petrol station attendants working late shifts or security guards patrolling alone are all prime targets for criminals seeking an opportunity for robbery or assault. The absence of other employees or bystanders creates a situation where an attacker may perceive them as particularly vulnerable.

Statistics underscore this vulnerability. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that healthcare workers in the US, a profession with a high number of lone workers, accounted for over 75% of all workplace violence incidents nationwide. These workers were also nearly four times more likely to suffer serious injuries from such attacks compared to employees in other settings. Furthermore, a survey by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust revealed that 81% of lone workers expressed concern about violence and aggression, with 10% reporting having experienced physical assault.

By recognising these unique challenges, organizations can create a safer work environment for their lone workers. Implementing targeted protective measures, such as regular check-ins, advanced solutions fuelled by new technology like SOS alerts or geolocation monitoring, and clearly defined emergency protocols, empowers lone workers and can deter potential attackers. Addressing the specific vulnerabilities of lone workers within the broader framework of workplace violence prevention is crucial for ensuring the safety of all employees.

What are the common warning signs of potential workplace violence?

Workplace violence does not always erupt without warning signs. The ability to recognise and understand early signs in order to take appropriate action to diffuse situations can prevent incidents from occurring or escalating. Some common red flags to keep an eye out for include:

Behavioral changes: Noticeable shifts in behavior of an employee can be a cause for concern. This can include increased irritability, outbursts of anger, social withdrawal or a preoccupation with violence.

Threats: Employees might exhibit verbal threats or intimidation, or boast about causing harm. This doesn’t just refer to direct verbal threats. Indirect threats, veiled comments or even fixating on weapons or violent news stories can all be indicators of a potential issue.

Emotional volatility: Pay attention to employees who seem overly stressed, anxious or prone to emotional outbursts. Employees who struggle to manage their emotions or have difficulty handling criticism may be more susceptible to lashing out in the workplace. 

Work performance issues: A sudden decline in work performance, increased absenteeism or a disregard for safety protocols could also be signs of underlying problems. These issues might stem from personal struggles or could be a way for the employee to express their dissatisfaction or frustration.

Fixation and obsession: Does an employee seem fixated on a particular situation or obsessed with a recent conflict? Do they seem resentful of something that has happened in the past and unable to move forward? This type of negative focus can be a precursor to violent behavior.
It’s important to remember that not every instance of these warning signs will culminate in violence. However, by being observant and taking these signs seriously, organizations can take proactive steps to intervene and prevent a potentially dangerous situation. If organizations or employees notice any of these signs in a colleague, it’s crucial to report them to the relevant person. By working together, both organizations and employees can create a safer and more positive work environment.

What are the causes of workplace violence?

Workplace violence can stem from a variety of factors and be fuelled by both personal and professional circumstances. Identifying the root causes can play a crucial role when developing effective prevention strategies.

Criminal intent: Some forms of workplace violence are not directly related to the actual workplace. According to the National Crime Victimisation Survey (NCVS), robbery is the most common reason for work-related homicide, which accounts for 85% of workplace violence deaths. Criminal acts like robbery or assault can target any individual, including employees, as a result of their location or the valuables they possess.

Lack of pre-employment screening: Failing to conduct thorough background checks or reference checks during the hiring process can unknowingly bring individuals with a history of violence or aggression into the workplace. While pre-employment screening isn’t foolproof, it can be a valuable tool for identifying potential red flags and mitigating risks.

Work-related stressors: Work environments that are high pressure, fast paced or lack clear communication can create frustration and anger. This can be exacerbated by factors such as job insecurity, long hours or inadequate resources. When employees feel overwhelmed or unsupported, they may become more susceptible to reacting aggressively.

Organizational culture: Toxic workplace culture that tolerates bullying, intimidation or aggression can normalize violence. Conversely, a culture that emphasizes respect, open communication and conflict resolution can help to mitigate conflict and prevent violence.

Disgruntled employees: Employees who feel undervalued, unfairly treated or dissatisfied with their work situation may be more likely to engage in violent outbursts. This could develop from issues like unfair compensation, lack of promotion opportunities or a perceived lack of control over their work.

Personal struggles: Employees experiencing personal problems such as domestic violence, financial difficulties or mental health issues may be at greater risk of workplace violence. These external stressors can create emotional volatility and impair an individual’s ability to cope effectively.

What is the impact of workplace violence?

Workplace violence can have a significant impact on both the organization and employees. While physical injuries are often the most visible, the consequences of workplace violence extend far beyond these. It can trigger a number of ramifications that affect other team members, the wider organization and the public, not just the employees directly involved. 

Psychological and emotional impact

Trauma and fear: Witnessing or experiencing violence can be traumatic. Feelings of fear, anxiety and depression are common, and can significantly impact an individual’s ability to function at work and in their personal lives. Studies show that as many as 32% of employees develop post-traumatic stress disorder or other traumatic disorders after an incident.

Reduced morale and productivity: A climate of fear and uncertainty can erode employee morale and productivity. According to the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, employee productivity can decrease up to 50% in the 6 to 18 weeks following an incident. Employees may become withdrawn, disengaged and less likely to take risks or collaborate with colleagues.

Increased absenteeism and turnover: The stress and trauma associated with workplace violence can lead to increased absenteeism and employee turnover. This can disrupt operations and create additional costs for the organization. A ten-year study determined that employees exposed to workplace violence are nearly twice as likely to have health-related absences in the years following the incident.

Organizational impact

Financial costs: Workplace violence can cost up to $3.1 million per person per incident in litigation alone. Beyond legal costs, workplace violence can result in further financial losses that include medical expenses, security upgrades and lost productivity. Both the physical and emotional injuries sustained as a result of workplace violence can also place a strain on the healthcare system as a result of treatment and rehabilitation costs.

Damaged reputation: A violent incident can severely damage an organization’s reputation. Negative media coverage and public perception can make it difficult to attract and retain employees and customers. If not addressed effectively, workplace violence can create a climate of fear and acceptance of violence in the organization as a whole. For instance, the National Employment Law Project released a report that uncovered many ugly truths about the failure of McDonald’s to keep their team members safe from workplace violence. Once reports like this are live on the internet, they are difficult to erase and can be a helpful source for prospective talent.

Reduced operations: Depending on the severity of the incident, workplace violence may lead to work stoppages or disruptions that can further impact productivity.

How can workplace violence be prevented and de-escalated?

Preventing workplace violence requires a multifaceted approach. While not all incidents can be completely prevented, implementing comprehensive strategies that address the causes and focus on de-escalating volatile situations can significantly reduce the risk of incidents. Here are some considerations for organizations when building effective protocols.

Build a culture of safety and respect

Zero-tolerance policy: Establish a clear and well-communicated zero-tolerance policy for all forms of workplace violence, including verbal abuse, bullying, intimidation and threats. Such policies should encompass all employees, visitors, contractors and anyone who interacts with the organization.

Open communication channels: Foster a culture of open communication, where employees feel comfortable reporting concerns or potential threats without fear of retaliation. Anonymous reporting mechanisms or designating trusted individuals to receive reports may help employees feel more comfortable.

Training: Equip employees with various skills so that they can manage volatile situations constructively. Programmes can teach active listening, de-escalation techniques and effective communication strategies for resolving disagreements peacefully. This can also empower employees with the tools to intervene safely if they witness situations in the workplace that can quickly escalate.

Create a secure working environment

Regular risk assessments: Conduct these regularly to identify potential hazards and vulnerabilities. This may involve evaluating lone worker situations, assessing lighting or building in security measures in areas where conflict might arise. Once risks are assessed, appropriate measures can be implemented. These could include security personnel, access control systems, wearable devices, CCTV cameras and emergency procedures.

Employee well-being programmes: Workplace violence can stem from personal stressors. Promote employee well-being by offering programmes on stress management and mental health resources.

De-escalation techniques

Active listening: When confronted by an agitated individual, practice active listening skills. This involves paying close attention to what they are saying, validating their feelings and avoiding interrupting.

Non-confrontational communication: Use calm, non-threatening language and body language. Avoid making accusations or blaming statements.

Focus on de-escalation: The primary goal during a potentially violent situation is de-escalation. Use open-ended questions to encourage the individual to express their concerns and avoid triggering further aggression.

Provide options: If possible, offer the individual an opportunity to remove themselves from the situation to cool down.

Seek help: If de-escalation efforts fail, or employees feel unsafe, they should have confidence in seeking support from a supervisor, security personnel or emergency services.


Reporting and response protocols

Workplace violence is an ongoing issue that affects a wide range of industries; however, it is also widely underreported. Studies have found a high prevalence of underreporting of both physical and non-physical violence, with approximately 25% of workplace violence incidents going unreported. 

To combat this issue, implementing robust reporting and response processes is imperative to ensure employee safety and maintain a secure workplace where incidents can be reported. Organizations need to establish clear channels for reporting incidents where employees feel they can share details of occurrences without fear of retaliation. While the ability to report incidents is often the first step, employees need to feel reassured and confident the information will be taken seriously.

Once an incident is reported, it is vital that it is promptly investigated by a dedicated team trained in handling sensitive situations. This team should follow a predefined procedure that includes assessing the situation, interviewing involved parties and taking appropriate actions, which may range from mediation to involving law enforcement. Documentation throughout the process is essential to ensure transparency and accountability, and to facilitate any necessary legal action. 

Organizations should ensure ongoing support is provided to the victims, which can include counseling services and adjustments to current work conditions if required. It’s important to recognise that, while those directly involved in the incident require support, there may be times where clear communication and support needs to be provided to those indirectly involved as these incidents can have a lasting impact on all those around.

A comprehensive approach to reporting and response protocols ensures that incidents are managed efficiently and effectively, minimizing the negative impact while preventing future occurrences. 


Establishing safe work environments is not only necessary for creating positive outcomes that include a culture employees want to be a part of but it’s also imperative from a legal aspect. When addressing workplace violence, organizations must comply with legal standards to ensure both preventative measures and response protocols are legally adequate.

The Health and Safety at Work Act, which governs Great Britain, places a legal duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of workers. This includes protecting them from work-related violence. Every business must have a policy for managing health and safety. Similarly, OSHA has developed guidelines to help prevent workplace violence. Under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers can be cited if there is a recognised hazard of workplace violence in their establishments and they do nothing to prevent or abate it.

States around the US have begun to enact specific legislation targeted at reducing workplace violence. Organizations should also be aware of state-specific laws that may impose additional requirements, such as mandatory training or incident reporting. For instance, in September 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a workplace violence prevention law that applies to all organizations in California. The law requires employers to have an effective programme in place to prevent workplace violence by 1 July 2024.

It’s important that organizations have a clear understanding of any legal obligations, as non-compliance can include fines, lawsuits and reputational damage. Understanding the legal rights of employees, such as the right to refuse unsafe work, is crucial. Employers must balance these considerations with respect for privacy and non-discrimination laws, making the development and enforcement of these policies complex yet essential for maintaining a safe work environment that minimizes the risk of workplace violence.


Conclusion

Every day, millions of workers around the world face workplace violence. It manifests in various forms, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assault. Workplace violence remains a serious global concern that impacts the lives of many – not only the individuals directly involved. While not all incidents are entirely preventable, ​​implementing a multifaceted approach can significantly reduce the risk of incidents and create a safer, more positive work environment.

This approach requires developing a culture of safety and respect. This means a zero-tolerance policy for violence, open communication channels, and equipping employees with conflict resolution and bystander intervention skills. Creating a secure work environment is equally crucial. Regular risk assessments identify vulnerabilities for targeted security measures. Employee well-being programmes address potential stressors that may contribute to violence. De-escalation techniques are another key component. Training in active listening, non-confrontational communication and de-escalation tactics empowers employees to defuse volatile situations.

Finally, robust reporting and response protocols are essential. These protocols establish clear channels for reporting incidents without fear of retaliation, ensure thorough investigations and provide ongoing support to victims and those indirectly affected.

By adhering to relevant health and safety regulations, organizations ensure their preventative measures and response protocols are legally compliant. This demonstrates a commitment to employee safety, fostering a culture of respect and well-being that benefits everyone in the workplace.

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