Work To Reduce Exposure to Workplace Violence Threats

By Robert Capwell May 6, 2008

Workplace violence affects millions of American workers every year. But it is more than just the threat of someone walking into an establishment with a gun, although obviously that is one of the most frightening. As defined by theNational Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence, “workplace violence” is anything considered as “acts of aggression or violence including assaults, threats, disruptive, aggressive, hostile, or verbal or emotionally abusive behaviors that generate anxiety that occurs in, or are related to the workplace and entail a real or perceived risk of physical, emotional and/or psychological harm to individuals, or damage to an organization’s resources or capabilities.”

Threats of workplace violence can come from internal or external sources. The best ways companies can work to prevent the possibility of such things occurring is by taking proactive steps on policy and procedures to identify their overall level of risk.

High-Risk Industries

Although workplace violence is a concern for everyone, there are a number of industries and certain environments that are at a higher risk. Studies conducted by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that the highest numbers of occupational homicides were found at working environments that included taxicab establishments, liquor stores, gas stations, security and detective services, and justice and public entities such as courts and law enforcement offices.

Grocery stores, jewelry stores, hotels/motels and eating/drinking establishments also topped the list. Basically, any situation where workers exchange money with the public, work alone or in small groups, deliver passengers or work late hours or early morning shifts are included. In-home related services, social work, health care and other types of community-based positions also are included in the high-risk category. Risks are even greater for companies with locations in high crime areas and/or for those that have positions that require them to possess a weapon as part of their daily job function.

Reducing Internal Threats

The reduction of internal threats of workplace violence starts with assessing possible safety hazards or situations that can lead to uncomfortable employee interactions. Consider the following points when reviewing corporate policy, guidelines and employee handbooks within your organization, subject to state and local laws:

  • Establish a zero tolerance for workplace violence against or by other employees.
  • Conduct employee training so all staff members can identify workplace violence situations, including proper communication, reporting and follow-up.
  • Conduct sexual harassment training for all staff members with additional training for supervisors and managers to administer the policy.
  • Identify safety and accident risks, and establish policies to mitigate them.
  • Restrict employees from carrying weapons or other dangerous materials within the workplace.
  • Review all policies on a regular basis to maximize their effectiveness.

Considering many acts of workplace violence are committed directly by employees, establishing a background screening policy on all staff members can help mitigate further risk. Remember, an employee’s past performance and actions are a great predictor of future behavior. Establishing due diligent pre-employment and continuing background screening policies can help identify the propensity of an employee to cause acts of violence and greatly reduce “negligent hiring and retention litigation” against an organization. Following are suggestions for creating or reviewing screening policies:

  • Conduct comprehensive background checks on all employees.
  • Include a search of county and/or state felony and misdemeanor records covering a candidate’s past address history and name history for at least seven years or as applicable by law.
  • Search all available sex offender registries for acts of sexual assault or violence.
  • Search federal records to look for any previous charges such as kidnapping, robbery and other acts of violence.
  • Search additional electronic criminal databases to help close the gaps of missed jurisdictions involving transient candidates.
  • Conduct prior and current employment verifications to look for any previous violations of corporate policy or acts of violence.
  • Conduct motor vehicle record checks on staff members who drive on behalf of the company. DUIs and excessive traffic violations could increase risk factors.

Minimizing External Threats

Minimizing external threats and risk factors is the most challenging of all. It is difficult to control outside factors, such as customers or the general population’s entry into the workplace, especially in the retail industry. The dynamic of workers being exposed directly into the overall community takes even extra preventative steps. Facilities in high- crime areas and job positions that entail travel or work in the general outside environment can provide risks beyond our control.

Creating a well-thought-out security policy can help reduce the risk of “premise liability for negligent security litigation.” Consider the following external threats when trying to minimize workplace violence:

  • Secure the work environment by using staff identification badges.
  • Register visitors with a valid appointment at the front desk.
  • Use key card access for staff and limit entry and exit.
  • If the work environment provides for public access, use surveillance cameras and metal detectors where applicable and panic buttons for staff members, if possible.
  • Prepare employees who deal with the public to spot signs of violence through continued education and training.
  • If cash is on hand with employee access, create a policy to only have small amounts available and use a drop safe, if possible.
  • If staff visit customers at their home, institute a buddy system or escort policy.
  • Provide for adequate lighting in stairwells, alleys and parking lots.
  • Institute a buddy system for employees arriving at or leaving work locations very early or late.
  • Provide employees working outside the organization’s location with a quick way to communicate through walkie-talkies or cell phones.
  • Establish a policy for a worker’s “right to refuse” if he/she feels they are entering into a hazardous or potentially violent situation.

A well-thought-out and executed policy considering potential internal and external threats can reduce the risk of workplace violence significantly. Even with the best-laid-out policies, be sure to educate and train staff regularly on how to react if a potential situation of workplace violence occurs. It is also critical to review all policies and procedures on a regular basis, as preparing for the worst can be the best defense.


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