Training employees to “run, hide, fight” during active shooter events is often discussed, and it is a proven method that helps save lives. However, an active shooter event is only one type of workplace violence, and many other incidents are statistically more likely.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards, and this includes workplace violence. Teaching employees to recognize and report violent behaviors can help prevent these traumatic events.
Types of Violence
Workplace violence includes any type of physical assault, verbal abuse or threatening behavior that happens in a work setting. Violent actions include both verbal and physical actions such as disorderly conduct, intimidation, harassment, threats, hostility, obscene phone calls, bodily attacks, rapes, beatings, stabbings and shootings.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), along with The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and other national health organizations, categorizes workplace violence into four types:
- Criminal intent: The offender has no relationship with the workplace. The violent act is incidental to another criminal act, such as burglary
- Customer/client: The offender is a customer who is violent toward an employee
- Worker-to-worker: Violence occurs between two peers or between employees in a reporting relationship
- Personal relationship: The offender may not or may not have been an employee, but is (or was) in a personal relationship with the targeted employee
In healthcare and service organizations, including emergency medical services, prisons and police services, customer/client is the most common type of workplace violence. In general industry, a majority of workplace violence incidents are the latter two types (worker-to-worker or personal relationships), and there are usually precursors or warning signs that might go unreported or that are not investigated when they are reported.
Mentally-sound adults have mechanisms for coping with routine workplace stresses such as deadlines and production schedules or working with coworkers who irritate them. These coping mechanisms also help to balance work and life stress.
What to Watch For and Report
However, employee frustrations can mount in abnormal workplace conditions such as understaffing, inadequate security, high injury rates, poor management style or downsizing. Aggravating factors can also include conflicts such as unresolved grievances, family issues, health issues, finances, mental illness, and drug or alcohol abuse. An employee’s growing unrest can lead to unusual and problematic behaviors including:
- Social distancing
- Increased absenteeism or tardiness
- Persistent complaining
- Decline in job performance
- Increased belligerence
- Making ominous, specific threats
- Hypersensitivity to criticism
- Atypical acquisition of, or fascination with, weapons
- Obsession with grievances
- Preoccupation with violent themes
- Interest in recently publicized violent events
- Outbursts of anger
- Extreme disorganization
- Homicidal or suicidal comments or threats
- Blaming others for problems
- Drug or alcohol abuse
What Prevents Reporting
Employees usually recognize changes in a coworker’s behavior before supervisors or managers do. However, many will not report behavioral changes for a variety for reasons, including:
- A perception that violence is just part of the job
- Being unaware of the procedure for reporting concerns
- Not wanting to get the other person in trouble
- Not wanting to be perceived as a troublemaker
- Fear of retribution from the coworker
It’s important for employees to understand how to recognize and report problematic behaviors and harmful acts, both physical and psychological. That allows early intervention that helps to keep situations from escalating to violence. It’s both a matter of safety and the law. Employers must have comprehensive plans that identify hazards (including violence) and establish controls, policies and procedures that eliminate or minimize risks.