How to develop a workplace violence prevention program

workplace-violence-prevention-450x350pxIt’s an unfortunate fact that violent incidents occur in all types of workplaces — including offices, retail stores, healthcare settings, and government buildings. Yet, with a strong workplace violence prevention plan, you’ll be able to greatly reduce the risk of acts of violence occurring at your organization.

Workplace violence can manifest in various forms, such as physical assaults, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and intimidation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) formally defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.”

Domestic violence incidents can also occur during work hours, such as a disgruntled ex-spouse showing up to harass or assault their former significant other.

Of course, certain types of businesses are at higher risk of violent incidents, such as convenience stores, banks, law enforcement, and healthcare facilities like hospitals and clinics. Preventing workplace violence involves identifying your top risk factors, such as whether your organization handles cash or stays open during late hours.

According to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 392 workplace homicides that took place in 2020, a majority of which occurred in sales, transportation, and material moving. As such, organizations in those occupational fields need to focus on preventing homicides (security guards, cameras, locks, etc.) above all else.

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Read on to learn how to discover your top risk factors and develop a workplace violence prevention plan.

Who’s most at risk for incidents of workplace violence?

As stated in the intro, certain types of businesses (and workers) are more at risk for workplace violence than others. Healthcare workers and law enforcement officers top the list here, as they deal with violent incidents all the time. In particular, workers in healthcare settings deal with unstable and dangerous patients at times, and without proper training on how to restrain these patients, physical injuries can occur.

Law enforcement officers are no strangers to violent behavior, as they’re constantly breaking up domestic disputes, dealing with dangerous prisoners, and apprehending violent criminals. Taxi drivers and other types of chauffeurs are also at high risk for violence, especially robberies and homicides.

Here’s a list of factors that place your organization at higher risk of violent incidents:

  • If you handle lots of cash, either in a register or a safe.

  • Working during late hours of the night.

  • Working in settings with unstable or dangerous individuals (social work, law enforcement, and healthcare settings).

  • If you transport passengers, valuables, or money.

  • Office environments that feature long hours, harsh punishments, and high turnover rates.

Besides occupation, gender also plays a role in who’s most at risk of violence. Women are especially vulnerable to domestic violence occurring in the workplace. The number of workplace homicides that feature female victims more than doubles male homicides (19% to 8%), 32% of which were committed by domestic partners.

Understanding the 4 types of violence that can occur at work

Before you start learning how to develop a prevention program, it’s crucial to understand the 4 types of workplace violence.

Doing so will help you better understand your top risk factors and warning signs, which will lead to a stronger prevention plan.

Type #1: Criminal intent

The first type of workplace violence is criminal intent.

In these incidents, the offender has no personal relationship with the business or any of its employees. Instead, their intent is to commit some sort of crime, which is usually theft or robbery — but can also include homicide and sexual assault.

Convenience stores, banks, and other popular targets for robberies (financial institutions, businesses in high-crime areas) are most at risk of criminal intent incidents. To prevent criminal intent cases, your best bet is to bolster your workplace safety.

Implementing things like surveillance cameras, motion-activated lights, and security guards will all drastically reduce the risk of crime.

Type #2: Client-on-worker

Whenever a customer or patient attacks an employee, it’s considered a client-on-worker incident. This is where a patron of a business commits a violent act, such as an assault, verbal abuse, or robbery. Healthcare workers, taxi drivers, social service workers, and law enforcement officers are most at risk of client-on-worker incidents.

Preparedness is the name of the game here, as you can greatly reduce the risk of injury with proper training. The threat of violence is omnipresent in healthcare settings that deal with unruly patients, but de-escalation and restraint training will make these incidents manageable for your staff.

The same is true for law enforcement situations, as being able to de-escalate a situation is one of the strongest skills a police officer can have.

Type #3: Worker-on-worker

The next type of workplace violence occurs between two co-workers at an organization. It could be two team members throwing playground insults at each other; it could be as serious as a former employee bringing a gun to work to exact revenge. The quality of your work environment matters here, as you’re more likely to experience acts of violence if you have a poor, stifling company culture.

In the late 80s and early 90s, the ‘going postal’ era was in full force, which was where a string of shootings from disgruntled postal employees occurred. The shooting that took place in 1986 in Edmonton, Oklahoma, is the most infamous of which, where Patrick Henry Sherrill brought a gun to the post office and murdered 14 of his co-workers.

Similar incidents would follow, and it was later uncovered that United States Postal Workers were placed under lots of undue stress. Since their higher-ups were under constant fiscal and political pressure to do more with less, postal employees were worked around the clock and brutally reprimanded whenever they made a mistake.

It’s strongly believed that this hostile work environment greatly contributed to the ‘going postal’ era, which reinforces the need for a fair, healthy company culture.

Type #4: Domestic violence

The final type of workplace violence is domestic violence, where individuals who have personal relationships with employees show up to commit violent acts.

The most common example is when a recently estranged spouse shows up at their significant other’s workplace. This almost always escalates into a violent incident, even if that wasn’t the intention. These types of incidents are practically impossible to predict, so your best prevention strategy is to beef up your security.

It’s also a good rule of thumb to periodically change your locks and access codes to prevent former employees from gaining access — as they may use their knowledge for nefarious reasons.

Top workplace violence prevention strategies

workplace-violence-prevention-450x350px-2Your prevention plan is often your first and only line of defense from incidents of workplace violence, so you should put plenty of thought and consideration into it.

Your first step should be to determine which type of workplace violence your organization is most susceptible to. This will help you identify potential risks that you need to address in your violence prevention plan.

If you work in a relatively safe area and don’t handle money or valuables, then worker-on-worker incidents are your primary cause of concern (although you should also plan for criminal intent, just in case). If you work in healthcare or do social work, you’ll want to focus on preventing client-on-worker incidents through security measures and proper training.

Here’s a look at some of the most effective workplace violence prevention tactics.

Recognize the warning signs

One of the best ways to prevent incidents from escalating is to spot the warning signs early on. A keen eye can spot a burgeoning conflict from a mile away, so it’s vital to train your staff on the most common warning signs.

These include the following:

  • Employees who are obviously abusing drugs or alcohol.

  • Deteriorating mental health signs such as depression, anxiety, and isolation.

  • Employees constantly complaining about unfair treatment and being overworked.

  • Constant skirting of company policies.

  • Tense, angry body language (scowling, arms folded, face reddening, etc.).

  • Poor job performance and abrupt mood swings.

  • Obvious paranoid behavior (thinking everyone is out to get them).

You should include these warning signs in your new employee training to ensure all new employees know what to look out for to help prevent violence. Mental illness isn’t always the cause behind violent incidents, either.

An employee who’s constantly being pushed further over the edge will eventually reach their breaking point, and that can happen to anyone in the right circumstances. That’s why it’s crucial not to judge others exhibiting the behaviors mentioned above.

Instead, train employees to quietly and respectfully bring up the warning signs to a supervisor — who will then confront the employee during a 1:1 check-in meeting in a safe environment.

Enact a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence

While some organizations claim to have a zero-tolerance policy toward violence, it won’t do any good if it’s mostly talk. To truly prevent violent incidents, you need to enact a strict zero-tolerance policy that shows no favoritism. The punishment needs to be harsh for the policy to act as a proper deterrent.

For instance, you could decide that any employee who receives a violence complaint will be suspended without pay for 2 weeks. If the behavior continues, it’s grounds for immediate dismissal. This type of no-nonsense approach will let your employees know that they can’t get away with any sort of violent behavior – including harassment and bullying.

Speaking of bullying, your policy should stick to the OSHA definition of workplace violence — which includes threats, bullying, harassment, and other types of disruptive behavior.

If you don’t make this explicitly clear in the policy, your employees may assume that only acts of physical violence will be punished. You’ll develop a safer, more positive company culture if they know they can’t hurl insults or make inappropriate advances toward co-workers.

Establish an effective system for incident reporting

Your human resources department should devise an airtight system for reporting incidents of workplace violence. Otherwise, damaging incidents of harassment and bullying may go unreported, which isn’t suitable for anyone.

Your employees should have a way to instantly and anonymously report violent incidents to HR or their supervisor. You can establish a special email address that your employees can send messages to anonymously, which will make reporting incidents quick and easy.

Also, encourage a culture of transparency in your organization. This is important because if employees view incident reporting as ‘snitching,’ they’ll be far less likely to do it.

As long as everyone knows that reporting violent incidents is an accepted and encouraged behavior, you’ll receive less kickback.

Perform background checks

Worker-on-worker violent incidents can be devastating, which is why you need to pay close attention to the employees you hire. Background checks offer a strong line of defense for worker-on-worker incidents, as they’ll help you avoid hiring people with violent criminal histories.

These are especially important if your employees deal with the public on a daily basis. The last thing you want is for an incident like what happened at the Wendy’s attack in Prescott Valley, Arizona.

In that case, a Wendy’s employee sucker punched a customer over an order dispute, eventually leading to the customer’s death. Background checks will help you avoid hiring potentially unstable people capable of carrying out acts of violence on your customers.

Implement security measures

Lastly, you should ensure your organization has ample security measures in place to prevent violent incidents. Not only will more security prevent criminal intent incidents, but you’ll also enjoy beter protection from acts of domestic violence.

After all, if a disgruntled husband can’t enter their spouse’s workplace, they won’t be able to commit any violent acts on the premises.

If some of your employees have to work late hours, bright lighting (especially in the parking lot) and surveillance cameras are a must. Metal detectors will ensure your employees aren’t able to bring firearms into the building, which can help prevent worker-on-worker incidents. Security guards are also a great idea if your business handles cash or protects valuables. Access codes at all entrances and exits will help prevent unwanted visitors to your work environment. These are a must if your office is located in a high-crime area.

Final thoughts: Workplace violence prevention plan

You never know when a violent incident may occur during work hours. You’ll want your team to be prepared if the worst-case scenario happens. Criminal cases like robberies and assaults are best prevented with security measures like guards, locked doors, motion-activated lights, and cameras.

Workplace bullying, gossip, and harassment will ruin company culture and wreck retention rates. That’s why a zero-tolerance policy that enacts harsh punishments is a necessity. As long as you have a workplace violence prevention program that all your employees know about, you’ll prevent most incidents — and you’ll be able to enjoy a positive, productive work environment.