What is workplace violence?

Workplace violence and active shooter situations can affect all occupations and business sectors. Customers, clients, students, patients, workers, family members, and intimate partners may threaten, harass or hurt workers while they are on the job. According to the FBI, workplace violence is now recognized as a specific category of violent crime that calls for distinct responses from employers, law enforcement, and the community. This recognition is relatively recent.

In August of 1986, postal employee Patrick Henry Sherrill burst into his place of employment in Edmond, Oklahoma and began shooting fellow employees, killing 14 and wounding 7 others before killing himself. Prior to the Edmond shooting, the few research and preventive efforts that existed were focused on particular issues—patient assaults on health care workers and the high robbery and murder risks facing taxi drivers and late-night convenience store clerks.

Within the workplace, there are a number of unacceptable or inappropriate behaviors that can take place including threats, bullying, physical attacks, degrading comments, intimidation and harassments. Any of these behaviors can have a negative impact on the interpersonal relationships and personal well-being of the workers. If these behaviors are not addressed and allowed to continue, the work environment can often become abusive and hostile. Failure to promptly address these behaviors can also have financial consequences. Employers can face legal actions up to and including lawsuits. Consequently, there may be an increase in employee lost time from work and or additional healthcare expenses.

Employers need to understand the importance of protecting employees against violent acts and threats of violence in the workplace, creating an atmosphere in which all workers can feel safe, and free to come forward with concerns about their safety. Employers must treat complaints of harassment seriously and have preventative measures in place to help stop it from occurring.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers have specific responsibilities regarding workplace violence and workplace harassment.

Clearly, violence in the workplace affects society as a whole. The economic cost, which is difficult to measure with any precision, is certainly substantial. There are intangible costs too. Just as with any violent crime, workplace violence creates ripples of suffering that go far beyond the experiences of a specific victim. It damages trust, tears the fabric of communities, and erodes the sense of security every employee has a right to feel while on the job. In that sense, everyone loses when a violent act takes place, so everyone is a stakeholder in violence prevention efforts.

Addressing Threats and Threatening Behavior

According to the FBI, many times, a violent act is preceded by a threat. The threat may have been explicit or veiled, spoken or unspoken, specific or vague; but it occurred. In other instances, some may observe behavior, which might suggest the potential for some type of violent act to occur. Yet in other cases, it may be the off-handed remark or comments made to people close to the individual, which may suggest problematic behavior.


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