A Prevention Guide for Workplace Violence

by Beth Greenwood

Workplace violence is a broad category that can include acts or threats of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse and even homicide. As of 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, reports that nearly 2 million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year. Although violence can occur at any workplace, some occupations or work sites are at higher risk. Prevention of workplace violence requires careful risk assessment, planning and employee training.

Conditions that Increase Risk

People who work in certain professions, such as law enforcement, healthcare, delivery services and public service, are at greater risk of violence than the average employee. Certain working conditions --- such as exchanging money with the public, working alone or in small groups, or working late at night or in areas where alcohol is served -- can increase the risk. Isolated or poorly lit parking areas and whether the organization is located in an area with a high crime rate can also be risk factors.

Risk Assessment

An essential step to developing a violence-prevention plan is to conduct a thorough risk assessment, which provides the organization with specific recommendations to mitigate the risk of violence. Most organizations hire a consultant to help them identify conditions that may increase the risk of violence and develop strategies to minimize or contain violent situations. A risk assessment is an evaluation of working conditions, personnel policies, staff training, location and the physical layout of an organization. For example, it is now routine for many organizations to conduct background checks of employees as a step toward preventing potential violence. Bulletproof glass and higher counters in reception areas can provide employee protection. A time-locked safe may decrease the risk of robbery.

Supervisor Training

Even in an organization that has policies and behavior expectations in place, violent episodes can occur if an employee has personal problems, uses drugs or alcohol, or becomes mentally ill. Supervisors need training to recognize possible warning signs, so that action can be taken as early as possible. Warning signs include sudden changes in behavior or job performance; persistent complaining or blaming; poor relationships with managers or coworkers; and chronic sullenness. Paranoid behavior, direct or indirect threats, paranoia, mood swings, depression and carrying or showing a concealed weapon, are also risk factors for violence.

Identifying Threats

Violence can be perpetrated by employees, customers and outsiders, such as gang members. In schools, a parent who is unhappy about his child’s treatment or a student who has been suspended may be potential perpetrators. A violence-prevention plan should include a system for documenting both actual and potential acts of violence. Employees should be taught to recognize behavior that may signal violent intent and to report these occurrences promptly. Some organizations develop threat teams that include management and human resources staff to assess the potential for violence and put countermeasures in place.

Prevention Strategies

OSHA says that employers should establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence. Enforcing this policy will mitigate the potential for problems such as harassment, verbal abuse or bullying inflicted by supervisors or coworkers. Other strategies might include hiring security guards; installing alarms or high counters in vulnerable places, such as a reception area; or the use of bulletproof glass and locked doors to prevent unauthorized entry. Ensure that parking lots and grounds are well-lighted and maintained. Trim shrubbery so that doors and windows are not obscured and there are no places for a perpetrator to hide. Train all staff members in conflict resolution and other tactics to defuse anger.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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