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<xTITLE>Workplace Violence: Paranoid or Prepared?</xTITLE>

Workplace Violence: Paranoid or Prepared?

by Kimberly Larsen
Violence in America - in the workplace and otherwise, is at the forefront of everyone's thoughts. The number of job-related homicides has increased for the first time in six years according to the 2000 National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Insurance Information Network reports that there are 650 homicides, 2 million assaults, and 6 million serious threats reported each year in the workplace, with two-thirds of the incidents preceded by behavioral red flags.

OSHA statistics reveal that an average of 20 workers are murdered each week within the United States and about 18,000 workers per week are victims of non-fatal workplace violence. Approximately 88% of the victims are white, and 66% of the victims are male.

The Cost to Employers

Workplace Violence costs American employers not only in dollars and cents, but also in a significant loss in productivity. It is estimated that American businesses lose approximately 36 billion dollars per year as a result of workplace violence. This figure includes monetary costs from lost productivity, legal fees, settlement costs and jury verdicts. Out-of-court settlements for lawsuits arising out of workplace violence average $500,000, with jury verdicts averaging about $3 million.

The Department of Labor estimates that annually approximately 18,000 employees miss work due to violent (but non-fatal) injuries they sustain at work. Forty percent of those employees missed at least a week of work, and another 20 percent missed at least three days of work. And that is only counting non-fatal injuries. The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (July 1994) states that those victimized due to assaults at worked missed an average of 3.5 days per crime. The missed work resulted in over $55,000,000 in lost wages annually, not including days covered by sick and annual leave.

Fatal injuries extract their own unique toll. If someone is killed at work, an employer not only loses a valuable employee, but the employer is also likely to experience lost productivity among workers who were victims or witnessed the violent incident. Typically, these workers suffer anxiety, fear, stress and grief, all of which combine to make it more difficult for them to work productively. It is not uncommon for such workers to quit because they cannot handle the stress. And of course, if the perpetrator is an employee, he or she will have to be replaced.

What is Workplace Violence?

One of the first steps in preventing workplace violence is recognizing it. Workplace violence is not just a murderous shooting rampage. Frankly, "Going Postal" is a myth. The Postal Commission recently released a report that found that postal workers are no more likely to physically assault, sexually harass or verbally abuse their co-workers than employees in the national workforce. In fact, the Commission's study found that retail workers are eight times more likely than postal employees to be homicide victims at work; comparing other occupations, taxi drivers are 150 times more likely than letter carriers to be homicide victims at work.

While approximately 39 percent of workplace homicides occur during a robbery, 46 percent occur during other crimes, and current or former employees commit less than 10 percent. Relatives of employees commit most of the remaining incidents of violence in the workplace

According to Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, 2,500 workers per 100,000 have been physically attacked on the job.

  • 44% of workplace attacks were committed by customers or clients;
  • 24% by strangers;
  • 20% by co-workers;
  • 7% by bosses; and
  • 3% by former employees.

Homicide is the most publicized form of workplace violence, but it is certainly not the most common type of behavior considered workplace violence. A broad range of conduct is considered workplace violence, including the following:

  • Sabotage of a co-worker or manager causing damage to his or her property
  • Violent confrontations in the workplace
  • Some forms of sexual harassment
  • Threats of violence by an employee
  • Assaults in the workplace
  • Armed robbery of employees
  • Suicide at the workplace
  • Hostage incidents in the workplace
  • Homicide

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") promulgated guidelines regarding workplace violence. OSHA recognizes four basic types of workplace violence:

TYPE I Criminal Intent Violence
TYPE II Customer/Client Violence
TYPE III Worker-On-Worker Violence
TYPE IV Personal Relationship Violence

Type I - Criminal Intent Violence:

  • The perpetrator does not have any legitimate business relationship with the establishment;
  • The primary motive is usually theft;
  • A deadly weapon is often involved, increasing the risk of fatal injury; and
  • Workers who exchange cash with customers as part of their jobs, work late-night hours, and/or work alone are at greatest risk.

Type I is the most common source of worker homicide. According to OSHA 85% of all workplace homicides fall into this category.

Type II - Customer/Client Violence:

  • The perpetrator is a "customer" or a client of the employee(s);
  • The violent act usually occurs in conjunction with the worker's normal duties; and
  • The risk of violence to some workers in this category (e.g., mental health workers and police) may be constant and even routine.

In Type II incidents, the perpetrator is generally a customer or client who becomes violent during the course of a business transaction or business relationship. These acts of violence can occur long after the business relationships have ended. Type II workplace violence accounts for 3% of yearly workplace homicides.

Type III - Worker on Worker:

  • The perpetrator is an employee or former employee; and
  • The motivating factor is usually related to interpersonal or work-related disputes.

Type III incidents occur when an employee or former employee assaults or attacks his or her current or former coworkers or supervisors. These incidents often take place after a series of increasingly hostile behaviors from the perpetrator. Type III violence accounts for about 7% of all workplace homicides.

Type IV - Personal Relationship:

  • Generally perpetrators are not employees or former employees of the affected workplace;
  • The conflict is a spillover of domestic violence into the workplace; and
  • The targets are women more often than men, although both male and female co-workers and supervisors are affected.

Type IV incidents typically occur when an employee's current or former spouse or significant other appears at the employee's workplace and engages in hostile behavior. Victims are overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, women. Recognizing the Problem

By some estimates, 85% of employees exhibit early warning signs before becoming violent. Research of hundreds of incidents of workplace violence reveal that in each case the aggressor exhibited multiple pre-incident indicators. Perpetrators often have social adjustment problems, such as unexplained increases in absenteeism, or noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene. They may also have a history of violence toward women, children or animals. A preoccupation with previous incidents of violence or a fascination with violent and/or sexually explicit movies or publications, or escalation of domestic problems all should be viewed as red flags.

The following is a good checklist for common pre-incident warning signs:


  • White Male 35-45 years of age
  • Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs
  • Noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene
  • Repeated comments that indicate suicidal tendencies
  • Noticeably unstable emotional responses
  • Paranoid behavior
  • Increased mood swings


  • Depression and withdrawal
  • Always disgruntled
  • Unexplained increase in absenteeism
  • Decrease in productivity
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Resistance and overreaction to changes in procedures
  • Unwillingness to accept blame or criticism
  • Repeated violations of company policies
  • Feelings of personal and professional failure
  • Threatens or verbally abuses others
  • Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation


    Preoccupation with previous incidents of violence Devises plan to "solve all problems" Possession/access to weapons and ammunition Increased comments about firearms or other dangerous weapons Empathetic with individuals committing violent acts Fascination with violent and/or sexually explicit movies or publications


    Unresolved debts/wage garnishments Bankruptcy/foreclosures Large withdrawals from or closing account with company's credit union or retirement plan


    Unexplained gaps in employment history Frequent job changes


    Loner with little or no family or social support Increasing isolation from family or friends Escalation of domestic problems, i.e., recent divorce or break-up of a significant personal relationship

    Employer Liability

    An employer may be vicariously liable to employees, customers, and others who are injured by one of their employees. Under some legal theories an employer may be liable to not only the employee(s) who is injured but also anyone else who is injured, i.e., a customer or innocent bystander. The theory is that, while at work, employees are acting on their employer's behalf. As such, if an employee injures someone, the employer may be liable the same as if it caused the injury.

    An employer may also be liable under a theory of negligent supervision. If an employee intentionally injures another, the employer may be liable to the victim for the employer's own negligence in failing to prevent the incident. This is true whether the victim is an employee, customer, or some other innocent bystander. The two main theories of liability are negligent hiring and supervision. The legal premise is that no one would have been hurt if the employer had checked into the employee's background or paid closer attention to the warning signs from the employee's behavior.

    Employer Responsibilities

    In 1995, The California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CAL/OSHA) issued revised guidelines for workplace security designed to provide information and guidance about workplace security issues to employers and workers in the state. CAL/OSHA recommends that employers establish, implement and maintain an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program to address the hazards known to be associated with workplace violence. A model program to assist employers and workers in this regard has been developed.

    In recognition of the problem of workplace violence CAL/OSHA also issued guidelines and recommendations to what it considers high-risk industries for implementing workplace violence prevention programs. In 1996, CAL/OSHA issued guidelines for health care and community service workers designed to assist and support workers who may be exposed to violent behavior from patients, clients, or the public. That same year CAL/OSHA also issued guidelines and recommendations for late-night retail establishments.

    Employers must remember that deaths or incidents that result in the hospitalization of three or more employees must be reported to OSHA and recorded on the employer's OSHA log. Employers should also record other injuries on their OSHA log if they result in medical treatment, loss of consciousness, transfer to another job, or restriction of work (these incidents do not have to be reported to OSHA).

    Workers' Compensation

    Employees who are injured at work as a result of workplace violence may be able to recover workers' compensation benefits. Workplace violence may be one of the rare instances where an employer would want an employee covered by Workers' Compensation. If not, the employee might be able to sue the employer for far more money than he/she could recover in workers' compensation benefits.

    Protecting Your Workplace and Employees

    Employers have an obligation to maintain a workplace free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. Encompassed within this general requirement is an employer's obligation to do everything that is reasonably necessary to protect the life, safety, and health of employees, including the adoption of practices, means, methods, operations, and processes reasonably adequate to create a safe and healthful workplace.


    In 1995, the California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) adopted revised guidelines for workplace security. The guidelines require that as part of an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP), "at-risk" employers must adopt a strategy to prevent workplace violence. "At-risk" employer is not defined. In assessing their risk for violence, however, DOSH notes that employers should consider the following factors:

    • Exchange of money, guarding money or valuable property;
    • Working alone at night or early morning hours;
    • Performing public safety functions in a community;
    • Retaining employees with a history of assaults, intimidation, or threatening behavior to others; or
    • Working with patients, clients, passengers, customers, or students known or suspected to have a history of violence.

    THE DOSH guidelines stress that employers consider each type of risk of workplace violence and adapt their IIPP to address their vulnerability to each particular risk associated with their workplace.


    Many states, including California, have recognized that employers have a duty to investigate job applicants to prevent the risk of violent acts directed at employees and others. The California courts have held that an employer may be liable for negligence in hiring or retaining an employee who is incompetent or unfit who harms a third person.

    There are several steps that an employer can take to protect themselves against liability for negligent hiring. To start with, employers should require all job applicants to fully complete job applications. Employers should not merely accept resumes in lieu of a completed job application. Prospective employees should be questioned about gaps in employment because such gaps could be due to the individual serving time for violent crimes. The employer should also contact each prior employer to verify dates of employment and positions held. The employer is also advised to document its investigative and screening efforts and all information it receives from prior employers and references, even if the employer receives all favorable information. No job offer should ever occur until the screening process has been completed. Finally, employment applications should state specifically that any false or misleading information will result in rejection of the applicant or termination of employment.


    California courts have recognized a theory of negligent supervision. In other words, an employer has an obligation to take reasonable care in supervising its employees to prevent a workplace violence incident. The courts recognize that nearly warning signs preceded 85% of all workplace violence incidents. Mental health professionals have identified several early warning signs:

    • Ominous threats: "He better watch his back" or "I wouldn't be surprised if the brakes might just fail on his truck".

    • Obsessive behavior: This is someone who knows every move a person is making. Follows the person everywhere and learns everything he can about the person, typically an unreciprocated romantic interest. (Commonly referred to as stalking.)

    • Illogical thoughts: expressing his/her thoughts that everyone at the workplace (whether they know the person or not) is out to harm him/her. Or stating an exaggerated belief of entitlement to certain benefits, promotion or bonus.

    • Threatening acts: intimidation of fellow employees or customers either verbal or physical, i.e., brandishing weapons at the workplace.

    Supervisors and managers should receive training on how to identify these early warning signs and how to deal with individuals who exhibit signs of violent tendencies. Additionally, supervisors should have sufficient training to simply be good supervisors. This includes the skills to be reasonable and evenhanded in managing employees. Supervisors and managers need to understand the importance of addressing performance and disciplinary problems promptly and consistently. They also need to be trained to handle terminations, layoffs and demotions sensitively.

    Finally, because a company's supervisors are on the front line, so to speak, they should receive additional training in how to defuse a potentially violent situation and how to respond when a critical incident occurs.

    There is a growing emphasis on required training, as exemplified by Cal-OSHA and Fed-OSHA guidelines. If managers and supervisors have not been trained on the early warning signs of potentially violent employees and have not been trained regarding appropriate response to a potential incident, the employer could very well be exposed to liability for negligent supervision.

    Critical Response Plan

    Employers should have in place a comprehensive plan for maintaining a safe work environment. Many employers have developed such a plan as part of their IIPP program. In order to develop an appropriate plan to address violence in a workplace, an employer should identify its particular risk factors. Has the employer experienced violence at the workplace? If so, under what circumstances? Employers should examine the company's physical workplace to identify weaknesses in security. Employer should find out from their employees what they think about possible sources of violence by conducting an employee survey into areas such as whether there is a particularly troublesome employee, a poorly lighted parking lot, or a management style that breeds feelings of negativity.

    A critical element to an employer's safe workplace plan is to provide assistance to troubled employees. Stress, substance abuse and other mental problems are all contributing factors to incidents of employee violence. Providing employees with ways to deal with these problems may prevent them from getting so bad that the employee explodes. Employers should consider offering a free, confidential Employee Assistance Program to employees. Other possibilities include offering a conflict resolution program for disputes, peer support groups, or referrals to other mental health services.

    Irrespective of how effective a prevention plan may be, however, there are no guarantees against an incident of workplace violence. Some of the most responsible employers have nonetheless experienced occasional incidents of violence. Accordingly, a comprehensive workplace safety plan must include crisis procedures in the event of an incident of workplace violence. The development of crisis procedures will reflect the unique conditions faced by each employer. In developing these procedures an employer should consult security consultants, trauma experts, human resource experts, local law enforcement, and legal representatives.

    Essential to any plan is what to do in the first 24 hours of the crisis, the next 72 hours, and the first week following the incident.

    Employers should:

    • Develop a chain of command to deal with an incident of workplace violence starting with immediate supervisors and managers and then shifting to a management crisis team;
    • Establish emergency notification procedures, including notification of: internal security; local medical, fire and police; EAP; and family of victims;
    • Contact a trauma consultant, occupational physician, security consultant, and/or legal representatives;
    • Implement procedures to determine and re-establish the safety of the workplace;
    • Establish an internal investigation team who will work with local authorities to gather critical information regarding: perpetrator, victims, witnesses, and photographs/security video tapes;
    • Set up a public relations team to deal with the media
    • Provide counseling to employees and their immediate family

    Keep in mind that employees are far more likely to heal quickly and return to a productive life if they receive counseling and feel assured that their employer has taken proactive steps to prevent the recurrence of violence at the workplace.


    Here are few web sites that may be of interest to you in your efforts to maintain a violence-free workplace:

  • Biography

    Kimberly K. Larsen, Esq. develops programs for Workplace Answers, a web-based training company specializing in workplace violence prevention and workplace harassment law. Ms. Larsen has ove15 years experience representing employers in labor and employment issues, not only as a trial lawyer, but also as a consultant and trainer. Currently, Ms. Larsen devotes her efforts to resolving organizational conflict through her business Conflict Resolution Center based in San Francisco. In her work with both Workplace Answers and Conflict Resolution Center, Ms. Larsen is able to provide a wide range of services to organizations to resolve conflicts. These services include; web based and in-person training, analysis and recommendations regarding workplace policies and procedures, threat assessments, and counseling and mediation services.

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