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Workplace Violence

Workplace Violence


Lawrence Kane is the author of Surviving Armed Assaults and Martial Arts Instruction, and co-author of The Way of Kata (all from YMAA). Over the last 30 or so years, he has participated in a broad range of martial arts, from traditional Asian sports such as judo, arnis, kobudo, and karate to recreating medieval European combat with real armor and rattan (wood) weapons. He has taught medieval weapons forms since 1994 and Goju Ryu karate since 2002. He has also completed seminars in modern gun safety, marksmanship, handgun retention and knife combat techniques, and he has participated in slow-fire pistol and pin shooting competitions.

Since 1985, Lawrence has supervised employees who provide security and oversee fan safety during college and professional football games at a Pac-10 stadium. This part-time job has given him a unique opportunity to appreciate violence in a myriad of forms. Along with his crew, he has witnessed, interceded in, and stopped or prevented hundreds of fights, experiencing all manner of aggressive behaviors as well as the escalation process that invariably precedes them. He has also worked closely with the campus police and state patrol officers who are assigned to the stadium and has had ample opportunities to examine their crowd control tactics and procedures.

To pay the bills he does IT sourcing strategy and benchmarking work for an aerospace company in Seattle where he gets to play with billions of dollars of other people's money and make really important decisions. Lawrence lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife Julie and his son Joey. He can be contacted via e-mail at

This article covers the issues sounding workplace violence and is adapted from Lawrence's superb book Surviving Armed Assaults (Please click on the picture of the book cover below to find out more about the book). It's a great article and I'm very grateful to Lawrence for sharing it with members and visitors to this site.

All the best,


Workplace Violence

by Lawrence Kane

"Eighteen thousand people are victimized in the workplace every week in the United States. Every week! While more and more companies are moving forward with innovative ways to control this alarming trend, it is imperative that all employees-office workers as well as those working in warehouses, on oil rigs, in manufacturing plants, and in a host of other workplaces-do all they can to stay safe." - Lt. Col. David Grossman

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, workplace homicide is the leading cause of death among female workers in the United States and the second leading cause of death among men. As the quote above indicates, 18,000 people a week are victimized by some sort of violence in the workplace in this country alone. Understanding how to protect yourself and your employees is indispensable knowledge.

This knowledge is critical even in areas where you generally would not consider yourself in danger such as a courthouse where weapons are prohibited and everyone has to pass through a metal detector before entering the building. On March 11, 2005, Fulton County ( Georgia ) Superior Court judge Rowland Barnes, 64, and his court reporter were killed in the courtroom by Brian Nichols, 33, who was on trial for rape and kidnapping at the time. According to police reports, he allegedly overpowered the female deputy who was escorting him to the proceedings to gain control of her gun. Nichols then used her keys to enter the courtroom, where he killed the judge and court reporter. From there he fled the building, killed another deputy, and then hijacked a car to make his escape. He was captured 26 hours later after allegedly committing at least one more murder and kidnapping a woman who eventually convinced him to release her and turn himself in.

In the United States there are an average of 17 homicides in the workplace each week, many of which are largely unnoticed by the national media unless a Fortune 500 company, multiple victims, or high visibility victims like the aforementioned judge are involved. While the cost of policies, procedures, and personnel necessary to thwart this trend is costly, the price of inaction is high as well. Employers are frequently liable for the cost of medical treatment, wage replacement, and disability for injured employees. Beyond psychological and physiological damage to employees, families, and co-workers, and the economic costs thereof, a company's stock typically takes a 15 percent reduction for several weeks following these types of incidents, partially due to reduced productivity, adverse publicity, and anticipated legal costs.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries estimates that indirect costs of litigation, lost productivity, turnover, and administration related to these cases often run as high as 20 times the direct costs of medical treatment, wage-replacement, and disability pensions caused by workplace violence incidents. According to Michael Viollis, president of Risk Control Strategies, a New York security consulting company, the typical jury award to victims or surviving family members is about $3,100,000 per person per incident. Legal fees for major cases can easily exceed $400,000.

While such incidents can occur at any time in any location, some industries have a higher propensity for workplace violence than others do. In descending order of danger taxicab drivers, liquor store clerks, gasoline station attendants, protective service employees, public safety officers, retail store employees, hotel workers, and restaurant personnel have the highest incidents of workplace fatalities due to violent acts. Industries with the highest risks of non-fatal injuries include psychiatric hospital workers, residential care employees, nurses, job training service workers, protective services employees, law enforcement officers, social workers, and correctional institution employees.

Risk Factors

An analysis of certain risk factors can help identify circumstances in which workplace violence is more or less likely to occur. For example, organizations that handle large sums of money or liquidateable assets, where employees routinely work late at night, or that take charge of mentally disturbed or criminal subjects have a higher risk of violence than other types of agencies. While not an absolute predictor, the more risk factors the higher the danger. By understanding potential risks, you can tailor prevention measures that are appropriate to your business or workplace. General risk factors can include:

•  Unstable or volatile clients (e.g., health care, social services, or criminal justice).

•  Public contact or work in community-based settings (e.g., social services, real estate agencies, or retail stores).

•  Site located in or near high-crime areas.

•  Mobile workplace or delivery of passengers, goods or services (e.g., taxicab, bus, law enforcement, delivery services, or construction trades).

•  Employees who work in isolation, late at night, or early in the morning (e.g., gas stations, convenience stores, or delivery drivers).

•  Guarding valuable possessions or property (e.g., armored car, bank, or jewelry store).

Violence can be facilitated by the institutionalization of poor interpersonal dynamics in the workplace or by a proliferation of ill-trained or dictatorial management. Lack of policies, procedures, and other controls can also be a factor. While some types of workplaces are inherently more caustic than others, a hazard assessment should help identify risks that can be reduced or prevented. A comprehensive workplace violence program should be in place at every organization.

In developing proactive safety measures, it is often useful to categorize the type of violence employees are most likely to face as the strategies for dealing with each type may differ. While anything is possible, there are four major kinds of violence that can occur at the workplace. Some workplaces are more at risk from certain types than others are. The four types of workplace violence are:

•  Stranger violence.

•  Customer/client violence.

•  Co-worker violence.

•  Intimate violence.

Stranger Violence Scenario

Stranger violence involves threatening behaviors or physical assaults by people who have no legitimate business relationship to the workplace. People who perpetrate this type of violence are typically carrying out some sort of criminal act such as a rape or robbery on the premises. Workplaces locations at high risk for violence by strangers commonly include taxicabs and late night retail establishments.

Convenience store workers, for example, are frequently at risk from stranger violence since store hours mandate that someone must work late at night or early in the morning. These employees deal with money, work alone or in isolated locations, and are often located in or near high crime areas. Prevention measures might include de-escalation training for employees, minimizing the amount of cash on hand and posting signs advertising that fact, installing closed-circuit video cameras, enhancing lighting, communicating with police or security personnel, and staffing at least two employees per shift. Training plans should be developed and policies established so that front line workers will know what to do should a violent act occur.

Customer/Client Violence Scenario

Customer or client violence involves threatening behaviors or physical assaults by people who either receive services from or are under the custodial supervision of the affected workplace or victim. Assailants can be current or former customers or clients such as passengers, patients, students, inmates, or criminal suspects. Motives for such acts can include seeking revenge for a perceived injustice by the organization or its representatives, attempts to escape control or custody by an employee, or simply a reaction to psychosocial disorders in the perpetrator. Workplaces at high risk for this type of violence include any place that directly serves the public, including transportation drivers, health care providers, law enforcement, and sales personnel.

Social workers, for example, are frequently at risk from customer or client violence. They tend to work at sites with direct public contact or, at times, visit clients' homes in isolation. Furthermore, they tend to deal with clients who may have histories of mental illness or criminal behaviors. Prevention measures might include providing de-escalation training for employees, ensuring that client history is know to the counselors, eliminating client home visits or conducting such visits in teams, controlling access to the work location, and providing armed security personnel.

Delivery drivers and trades people who must enter other people's homes or businesses must be especially alert for potential dangers. Not only may they be threatened or attacked by others, but also they may be falsely accused of a whole host of crimes including robbery, rape, indecent liberties, sexual harassment, or assault. Deployment of distinctive uniforms, company identification badges, and frequent communication with dispatch personnel may help. It is a good idea to document arrival and departure times at each customer location via radio contact with the dispatcher and by filling out a time log. Be sure to minimize the amount of cash or valuables you carry while working these types of jobs.

Co-Worker Violence Scenario

Co-worker violence includes threatening behaviors or physical assaults by people who are employed by the same company as their victim or by a subcontractor or partner organization that routinely work with the victim. This includes current or former employees at all levels throughout a company. Co-workers who perpetrate this type of violence frequently seek revenge for something they consider unfair or unjust treatment.

Co-worker violence can happen at any time, but it is especially prevalent during stressful job-disruptions such as policy changes, strikes, mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, or layoffs. Be cognizant of employees who exhibit warning signs. These may include people who are chronic complainers, easily frustrated on the job, manipulative, unwilling to compromise, loners, or otherwise exhibit unprofessional or anti-social behavior on a regular basis. Offenders frequently have higher than average intelligence, less than average communication skills, and a history of run-ins with bosses or co-workers. They may be chronic drug or alcohol abusers, romantically obsessed with a co-worker, severely depressed, or obsessed with weapons, police, or military work.

Although anyone can kill at the workplace, perpetrators are typically long-term employees of a company who exhibit many of the warning signs above. They are most often male, aged 35 to 50, though females and younger and older employees have initiated workplace violence in the past. The vast majority of perpetrators make threats or joke about killing or hurting co-workers before they act. Two-thirds of such individuals kill themselves after committing an extreme act of violence.

Prevention measures might include providing de-escalation training for employees, instituting zero-tolerance policies for violent behavior, developing procedures for effectively dealing with disciplinary issues, offering access to employee assistance programs or counseling services, hiring armed security personnel, and developing emergency evacuation plans. Disruptive job events such as layoffs, mergers, outsourcing, or offshoring should be carefully planned and well communicated throughout the organization.

Many companies also prohibit weapons on their premises though I would argue that such policies are more likely to do harm than good. Lawbreakers will ignore such rules anyway. Potential victims, on the other hand, will be less able to defend themselves when attacked.

Intimate Violence Scenario

Intimate violence on the job includes threatening behavior or physical assault by someone with whom the victim has a personal relationship outside of work. This could include current or former spouses, lovers, relatives, or friends of the victim. People who perpetrate this type of violence are typically motivated by perceived difficulties in the relationship or by psychosocial factors that are unique to that individual or their relationship.

There is a complete section on intimate violence already in this chapter so we will focus on workplace prevention factors here to avoid being redundant. Prevention measures might include providing de-escalation training for employees, offering access to employee assistance programs, or counseling services, offering domestic violence prevention training, controlling access to the worksite, ensuring that management and co-workers are aware of any restraining orders that might be in place, developing emergency evacuation plans, and hiring armed security personnel. If you know that a co-worker has a restraining order against his or her spouse be extra cautious until his or her situation is resolved.

Violence Prevention Plans

Violent acts generally occur in predictable types of sites and settings so when risks are identified proactive plans can be set in place to reduce or eliminate them. To be effective, a senior executive should be appointed to spearhead the program. Management and employees should work together to develop the plan, ensure buy-in, commit resources, provide motivation to address issues, and provide feedback. Policies should be well thought out, comprehensive, fair, and clearly communicated.

Hazard assessments should examine risk factors and determine vulnerabilities for stranger, customer, co-worker, and intimate violence on the job. Incidents that do occur should be tracked and analyzed to determine what caused the failure and prevent it from happening again. Training, reporting, record keeping, and periodic evaluations should be integrated into the plan. Employee welfare should be the first priority.

Procedures should be set in place to ensure a coordinated response if an attack occurs, addressing employee safety, site security, emergency services, and medical triage among other issues. If an incident occurs, site safety must be assessed, medical and law enforcement personnel must be contacted, incident areas must be secured to preserve evidence, and all employees must be accounted for. Provisions for medical and psychological follow-up, medical confidentiality, and payment of salary or benefits after the event must be in place where needed to prevent victims from suffering further loss.

Employer Liability

Employers may face civil claims from the victims of workplace violence as well as from perpetrators, witnesses and others who are peripherally involved. Claims can include, but are not limited to, negligent hiring, negligent retention, wrongful termination, and failure to warn. Measures an employer takes to prevent workplace violence may limit potential liability. Some important steps include:

•  Develop and implement a comprehensive risk mitigation plan.

•  Provide safety education for employees so that they will understand what conduct is acceptable and know what to do during an emergency.

•  Conduct comprehensive background and reference checks for all potential new hires and use credit checks to verify job applicant information.

•  Research prior criminal convictions of potential hires that might reasonably relate to job duties as permitted by law. For example, registered sex offenders cannot legally work with or around children in many jurisdictions.

•  Secure the workplace, limiting access by outsiders to sensitive areas via the use of identification badges, cipher locks, electronic keys, security personnel, and/or other reliable methods.

•  Pre-program emergency numbers into employee phones and cellular devices. For personnel who have not been trained how to react under stress, fine motor skills are lost under the effects of adrenaline making it very difficult if not impossible to do something as simple as dialing 9-1-1. In locations where 9-9-1-1 dialing is required this can be even more challenging as more conscious thought is required to do it correctly.

•  Conduct routine drug and alcohol testing where appropriate. This generally means that testing must be job related and consistent with business necessity as permitted by law.

•  If employees work with large amounts of cash, provide safe drops to limit the amount of available cash on hand, especially during late evening and early morning hours.

•  If employees must make home visits establish specific policies and procedures regarding client contact, ensure the presence of others as appropriate, and establish the right of employees to use discretion in avoiding hazardous situations.

•  Ensure that any company vehicles are properly maintained and equip field staff with cellular phones or other communication devices.

Employee Safety

Nothing can guarantee that an employee will never become a victim of workplace violence, yet there are prudent precautions that anyone can take to become more secure regardless of whether or not their company has a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program. Start by learning how to recognize, avoid, or de-escalate potentially violent situations by attending employer-provided training where available or finding private courses to go to on your own. Be sure to alert management of any safety or security concerns you may have and be assertive to ensure that your fears are understood. Additional suggestions include:

•  Know your company's workplace violence procedures and emergency plans.

•  Be professional, treating everyone you interact with on the job with dignity and respect.

•  Carry only minimal money and required identification if you have to travel into community settings on the job.

•  Avoid entering any location that you feel is unsafe.

•  Report unusual co-worker or customer behaviors to management.

•  Use a buddy system so that someone else is prepared to act in concert with you should an incident occur at the job site and so that someone knows where you are at all times if you have to travel to other locations to perform your work.

•  Identify hazards, escape routes, alternate exits, and hiding places at your workplace and along any routes you must travel to, from, or on the job.

•  Identify areas of cover or concealment where you can hide from an attacker but also be aware that those same areas can also be used by perpetrators for ambushing their victims.

•  Be aware of improvised weapons such as hot coffee, fire extinguishers, chairs, tools, lumber, company vehicles, cutlery, scissors, telephones, attaché cases, or car keys that you can easily access in an emergency. If you have a concealed weapons license understand your company's policy regarding weapons in the workplace.

•  If something bad does happen on the job, never assume that someone else has already reported the incident. Call law enforcement personnel immediately upon reaching a safe location. Answer questions calmly and concisely, stay on the line, and follow the dispatcher's instructions.

If you have to run from an attacker, try to keep objects such as furniture, boxes, vehicles or machinery between you and your assailant. Everyone will need to make a personal choice about evading or dodging given the unique characteristics of each encounter, but I'm inclined to just run as fast as I can toward safety, grabbing any improvised weapon I come across that can be picked up without slowing me down for possible use later. If you cannot get out a door, do not hesitate to use a window or even break through an interior wall as necessary to escape an attacker. If you cannot run, you will want to hide, regardless of whether the perpetrator is looking for you specifically or simply attacking random victims.

Copyright © Lawrence Kane 2006

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