Workplace Violence: Facts and Training

Fortunately for employers and employees alike, workplace violence has shown a decreasing trend in recent years, but it remains a serious problem that affects all types of businesses. Like workplace accidents, workplace violence is costly. One estimate puts the average expense of an incident of workplace violence at $17,000. In addition, surveys report that workplace violence is underreported for various reasons, including personal embarrassment at being victimized. While the facts of workplace violence are complicated, but the steps that employers can take to address them are relatively simple and can help prevent or lessen both personal tragedy and expense.

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), workplace violence is “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” Statistics from the National Safety Council (NSC) show that violence is a cause of 16 percent of workplace fatalities, which ranks just below a cause as common as slips, trips, and falls at 17 percent. Clearly, workplace violence is a safety concern not just for certain high-risk professions such as taxi drivers, cashiers, law enforcement, security guards, and medical personnel. One example of why this is so is revealed in the numbers concerning whether men or women are more affected by workplace violence. While men are most often the victims of workplace violence, this is a reflection of the prevalence of men in the higher-risk professions. The National Criminal Justice Reference Service reports that “men were more likely to be victimized in the workplace by a stranger while women were more likely to be victimized by someone they knew.” That someone may or may not be a fellow employee. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “Of the workplace homicides in 2016, 409 (82 percent) were homicides to men and 91 (18 percent) were homicides to women.” In some cases, the assailant is a stranger, in others, a coworker or family member of an employee.

These statistics demonstrate that workplace violence is a complex phenomenon with more than one type of assailant and victim. For this reason, it helps categorize the types of workplace violence.

The Four Types of Workplace Violence

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in classifying workplace violence into four categories: “criminal intent, customer/client, worker-on-worker and personal relationship, which overwhelmingly targets women.”

In the first category, criminal intent violence, “the perpetrator has no legitimate relationship to the business or its employees, and is usually committing a crime in conjunction with the violence (robbery, shoplifting, trespassing).” The second category, customer/client violence, “is the most common in healthcare settings.” For example, a patient or family member of a patient, in a moment of extreme stress or acute mental illness, assaults an orderly, nurse, or another medical professional. This type of violence is not limited to medical personnel, however. Retail workers, drivers, and others may be the victims of customer or client violence. The third type, worker-on-worker (also known as lateral or horizontal violence), can take place in any workplace and may start with bullying or other aggressive behavior from a present or past employee. This type accounts for a relatively low number of workplace homicides: 7 percent. The fourth type is personal relationship violence, in which “the perpetrator has a relationship” with the victim “outside of work.” This category also accounts for a relatively low percentage of incidents, with the first two categories taking up the rest.

For employers, these facts offer certain insights. For example, criminal intent violence is simply a risk that comes with some jobs. Steps can be taken to prevent or avoid violence, but there is little an employer can do to alter the nature of some jobs, for example taxi driving or law enforcement. On the other hand, workplace violence of type three (and to an extent, two and four) can be addressed, if not entirely eliminated, with training and policy.

Workplace Violence Training

Currently, at the federal level, OSHA states that “[t]here are currently no specific OSHA standards for workplace violence.” However, the agency’s general duty clause provides that employers shall furnish employees with a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” How can employers comply with this standard?

California offers one example. The state mandates workplace violence training for healthcare workers and has considered expanding the program to other fields. The California regulations offer some guidance on workplace violence prevention training and policy. This guidance was created to address not only type two violence but other types as well.

Training programs often emphasize the following three points:

  1. Employees should know that if they see something, they should say something. As a consequence, they should be trained in reporting procedures.
  2. Employees should know how to recognize behaviors that should be reported, even if they do not rise to the level of violence.
  3. Employers should make it clear that reports will be taken seriously.

The California regulations also spell out requirements for recordkeeping, site-specific training (including alarms, panic buttons, roles of various personnel, and so on), rules for reporting to law enforcement, and how to identify the potential for violence. While the California regulations are specific to the healthcare industry, they do offer a good framework for more general workplace violence prevention training. Oregon’s OSHA also offers an online course.

Active Shooter Training

Perhaps the most frightening type of workplace violence is a mass shooting. Some businesses are already offering training on this particular form of workplace violence. The National Safety Council and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provide examples of what such training may entail. The following three steps are common to both trainings. The DHS recommends:

  • Run: “If there is an accessible escape path, attempt to evacuate the premises.”
  • Hide: “If evacuation is not possible, find a place to hide where the active shooter is less likely
    to find you.”
  • Fight: “As a last resort, and only when your life is in imminent danger, attempt to
    disrupt and/or incapacitate the active shooter.”

The DHS training manual offers additional guidance on training exercises, having an emergency action plan, and how to respond when law enforcement arrives.


Workplace violence continues not only to injure but also claim the lives of employees across the country. With proper training, however, employees can learn to recognize dangerous behaviors, report violence, and, in the worst case scenario, act to reduce the risk or impact of violence if it should occur.

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