in the workplace has become an epidemic. Not
only is workplace violence increasingly common
in those workplaces where violence is expected
-- for example, corrections, law enforcement
and mental health -- but in almost every occupation
that deals with the public.
According to the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, homicides were the second leading
cause of death in the workplace in 1992, accounting
for 17% of all workplace deaths. Although the
press focuses on "postal worker-type violence,"
where a berserk worker kills his supervisor
or co-workers, such "worker-on-worker"
violence makes up only 4% of all workplace homicides.
The rest are the result of robberies, or assaults
by residents, patients or customers against
Homicide was the leading manner
of traumatic workplace death among women in
the United States from 1980 to 1989. Forty-one
percent of women's workplace deaths were the
result of homicide, compared with 10% among
men. Although women account for only 7% of all
worker fatalities, they were the victims in
17% of reported workplace homicides.
are only the tip of the iceberg. According to
the Department of Justice, one million individuals
become victims of violent crime each year while
working or on duty. A half million employees
miss 1.8 million days of work each year, resulting
in more than $55 million in lost wages, not
including days covered by sick and annual leave.
Workplace violence accounts for 16% of the more
than 6.5 million acts of violence experienced
by individuals age 12 and over.
The Department of Justice also
reports that government employees have a higher
rate of violence than private sector workers.
Government employees make up 18% of the U.S.
workforce, but make up 30 percent of the victims
Injuries and deaths related
to workplace violence should no longer be tolerated.
Most incidents are predictable, most are preventable.
And like any other workplace hazard, it is the
responsibility of the employer to take reasonable
measures to minimize the likelihood of workplace
What is Workplace Violence?
Workplace violence is not just limited to physical
assault, but can also include near misses, verbal
abuse, and sexual harassment. Even the fear
of assault or witnessing an assault on a co-worker
can have serious health affects on workers.
Effects of Violence
Aside from physical injuries, violent, abusive
or threatening incidents in the workplace often
result in serious and disabling psychological
damage. Victims of workplace violence also have
an increased risk of post traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), a disorder common among combat veterans
and victims of terrorism, crimes, rape and other
Psychological trauma is a common outcome of
violent incidents, but one that has not received
nearly enough attention or study. Emotional
problems resulting from violent incidents include
self doubt, depression, fear, post traumatic
stress syndrome, loss of sleep, irritability,
disturbed relationships with family, friends
and co-workers, decreased ability to function
at work, and increased absenteeism. Workers
often blame themselves when they are injured
in an assault, and management often encourages
It is rare that these issues
are dealt with effectively even in the short
term. But there is increasing evidence that
victims and witnesses of violent incidents need
long term treatment to fully overcome these
Causes of Violence
It is clear that we are living in a much more
violent society. There are more guns on the
streets and more people willing to handle their
problems through violence. Naturally, much of
this violence spills over into the workplace
-- hospital emergency rooms and social service
offices -- and "outside workplaces,"
such as neighborhoods where housing inspectors,
home health workers and child welfare workers
Not only has society become more violent, but
public policy has led to general society becoming
more violent and more dangerous for workers,
especially the people AFSCME represents -- social
services workers, health care workers, and mental
The great wave of deinstitutionalization
of recent years created an enormous homeless
population. Many of these people are mentally
ill and potentially violent. People who need
the structure and supervision of an institution
are now crowding our homeless shelters, unemployment
offices, emergency rooms and outpatient mental
The staffing levels in these
agencies are not adequate to deal with the case
loads. This again leads to more violence in
society and against workers.
There is a very dangerous common myth that workplace
violence is essentially random and unpredictable.
Because we can't predict it, we can't do anything
Actually, however, most violent
acts are predictable -- even in supposedly non-violent
jobs, where "random" acts of violence
occur. Experts have compiled a long list of
risk factors that are used to predict violence,
including the work environment, work practices
and the victim/perpetrator profiles.
that predict violence include a violent society,
a violence prone neighborhood, the large number
of weapons in circulation, early release of
mental patients, and hospitalization instead
of incarceration of criminals and risk of criminal
penalties for injuring patients or clients.
Work Practices include
low staffing levels, working alone, working
with money, long waits for services by customers,
clients or patients, or the lack of available
include mentally ill persons who are not properly
supervised or treated, gang members, relatives
of injured persons, and drug users. People with
a history of violent behavior are also prone
to violent acts.
- Employees who work in homes
or in the community;
- People who handle money;
- Workers in institutions for
the mentally ill or retarded who are not trained
in violence avoidance or self defense;
- Persons who provide care,
advice, information such as health care workers,
mental health workers, emergency room and
admission workers, and social services;
- People who deal with complaints,
such as social service, child welfare and
- Workers who have the power
to act against the public, inspect premises
and enforce laws, such as inspectors, child
welfare, law enforcement/corrections officers,
and security guards;
- People working alone, such
as child welfare workers, custodians, public
park workers, parking meter attendants, and
- People working late, unsocial
hours such as health care workers, custodians
and workers in homeless shelters.
Because violence can be predicted, it can also
be prevented, even in workplaces that serve
groups of the public who tend to be aggressive
and violent. In almost every situation, there
are solutions. Some are easy, painless and cheap,
others are more difficult and more expensive.
Solutions differ greatly from occupation to
occupation, and from workplace to workplace.
Nevertheless, there are clearly measures that
can be taken to make the work environment less
dangerous, even in the most inherently dangerous
After identifying the risk factors that increase
the likelihood of workplace violence, the first
thing the union should do is come up with possible
solutions. As far as possible, the same principles
should be used as are used by industrial hygienists:
first, attempt to eliminate the problem, then
attempt to engineer or build the problem out
of the workplace. Finally, change administrative
- Remove the Problem:
Mental health and social service workers are
frequently assaulted by patients or residents
in health care or social service facilities
who should be in jails or forensic facilities.
- Engineering Controls
include metal detectors (stationery or hand-held),
changing office design to provide escape routes
for employees, panic alarms, bullet proof
glass, entrance controls in certain parts
of the building, closed circuit TV cameras,
restricting entrance to a facility after dark,
mobile phones for field personnel. Not all
of these are practical in every workplace,
but effective measures can be found for any
- Administrative controls
can include additional staffing, a ban on
working alone, recording accidents, verbal
abuse and "near misses," and training
in diffusing violent situations or in self
defense. NOTE: Training as the sole
safety program element will create an impossible
responsibility on the employee for safety
and security for him or herself, coworkers
or other clients. Other program elements must
always accompany training.
Physical injury is not the only result of workplace
violence. Major, long-term psychological trauma
can occur after a violent incident. Often, supervisors
don't know how to deal with such situations.
In some mental health institutions, for example,
criminal actions are automatically brought against
workers after any incident where a resident
is injured. Supervisors sometimes start writing
out a disciplinary report against an injured
worker, even before first aid procedures have
Even those supervisors who are sensitive to
emotional trauma may not recognize that a violent
incident -- even those which do not result in
a physical injury -- can have serious and long-lasting
psychological effects on an employee.
Lack of support for workers
who are victims of violent incidents discourages
workers from reporting incidents. Lack of support
can also lead to needlessly prolonged psychological
trauma, both among victims, as well as co-workers
There must be a system in place
where persons trained in treating people exposed
to violent incidents can intervene immediately
after an incident has taken place. Whether the
procedure is called counseling or "debriefing,"
the procedure must begin as soon as possible.
Also, workers who witness incidents
and co-workers who do the same jobs as the assault
victim -- even in a different location -- may
also need counseling or debriefing. Such counseling
should be done by experts in Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder and other problems facing people
who have witnessed or been involved in violent
incidents. Often the counseling must be long-term
and include family members.
It is the employer's responsibility to maintain
a safe workplace. A violent workplace is an
unsafe workplace. Unfortunately, employers are
often not willing to work with the union to
attack the problem.
Supervisors often assume that violence is just
"part of the job" and workers shouldn't
complain. Supervisors sometimes laugh off employee
requests for police accompaniment when going
alone into neighborhoods that are so dangerous
that even armed police would not enter them
alone. Some supervisors discourage employees
from filing workers compensation claims or taking
time off for violence-related workplace injuries.
Some blame the worker for a violent incident.
Some workers blame themselves.
When the employer is not willing
to work aggressively on solving the problem,
the union must take action to educate workers
and force management to act.
Talk to workers, conduct a survey. Urge members
to document all assault incidents, close calls,
and abusive behavior. This data should be reviewed
on a regular basis and discussed with management.
Keep members informed through the local union
Develop a plan of action. Attempt to work with
management to develop a plan to prevent workplace
violence. If management refuses to respond,
the union should take action. File grievances,
develop contract language, build coalitions,
or go to the media.
Another effective action is to use OSHA (in
those 23 states where public employees are covered
by OSHA). Although there is no OSHA standard
designed to protect workers from violence, OSHA
has cited employers under the General Duty Clause,
which requires employers to provide a safe workplace.
In order to sustain a general duty clause violation,
OSHA must prove the existence of a hazard,
which is recognized and causes or is likely
to cause death or serious physical harm, and
the existence of a feasible and effective method
to abate the hazard.
The union will need to assist
OSHA in building its case.
1. Prove to OSHA
That a Hazard Exists
The employer's injury and illness
forms (OSHA Log 200) will hold evidence on the
extent of violence-related injuries. Grievances,
complaints, minutes of health and safety committee
meetings, and workers compensation records will
also be evidence that a problem exists.
2. The Hazard Is Recognized
Recognized means that
the employer has knowledge that assaults are
a hazard in the workplace and/or that workplace
conditions make violence likely. Recognition
can also mean that the employer should have
knowledge that assaults are a problem in the
workplace even if the employer doesn't admit
there is a problem. For example, the employer
should have known there is a problem
because this problem is generally recognized
by people working in the field, or there have
been several studies written, or guidelines
have been issued.
Recognition can be proved in
the following ways:
- The facility's or department's
own internal rules.
- Journal/professional articles
recognizing violence in this type of workplace.
- Injury statistics in the
workplace or in the industry in general.
3. The Hazard Causes or
Is Likely to Cause Death or Serious Physical
Workers Compensation records,
medical records, and accident reports can be
used to prove the severity of injuries related
to workplace violence.
4. A Feasible and Effective
Method to Abate the Hazard Exists
There are a variety of sources
of information on potential steps that can be
taken to minimize the likelihood of violence
in the workplace. These could include:
- A mental health, correctional
or other facility's own internal rules and
procedures designed to minimize violent incidents;
- Methods used in similar facilities;
- Employee surveys;
- Health and Safety Committee
- Literature search for articles,
studies or guidelines.
In conclusion, violence in
the workplace is a serious hazard, a predictable
hazard, and a hazard that has effective, feasible
solutions. Like any other health and safety
hazard, it is the employer's responsibility
to provide the working conditions that will
minimize the likelihood of employee injury due
to violence, and it is OSHA's responsibility
to enforce that responsibility.