Resources and Tips for Preventing Workplace Violence

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Trigger Warning: This article contains descriptions of workplace violence and behaviors related to workplace violence that may be triggering to some readers. 

Workplace homicides accounted for 392 of the 4,764 fatal workplace injuries that happened in the U.S. in 2020, according to data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). Workplace violence is a serious issue that impacts the lives of millions of U.S. workers each year. Employers and managers must take preventive measures to combat workplace violence and ensure employee safety.

To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Eastern Kentucky University’s Master of Science in Safety, Security & Emergency Management program.

Statistics, resources and tips for preventing workplace violence.

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Workplace Violence Statistics

Workplace violence is “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). “It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide.”

Nonfatal Workplace Violence

From 2015 to 2019, about 1.3 million U.S. workers reported being victims of nonfatal workplace violence. Eight violent crimes were reported for every 1,000 workers, and 18.9 out of every 1,000 government employees reported being victims of simple assault. Strangers committed 47% of nonfatal workplace incidents, and the victims were injured in 12% of nonfatal incidents. A total of 15% of workplace violence victims reported severe emotional distress due to the incident.

About 529,000 nonfatal injuries due to workplace violence were treated in hospital emergency rooms. Of the injuries treated, 33% involved contusions and abrasions, 12% involved sprains and strains, and 11% involved traumatic brain injuries.

Workplace Homicides by Methods (2015-2019)

Between 2015 and 2019, 79% of workplace homicides were due to shooting — by far the leading cause of workplace homicides — while 9% were due to stabbing, cutting, piercing, or slashing; 7% were due to beating, hitting, or kicking; 2% were due to multiple acts; and 1% were due to strangulation.

Situations With Increased Risk of Workplace Violence

Several work-related environments are commonly associated with an uptick in workplace violence. Risk factors are related to whether the workplace serves alcohol or is located in an area with a high crime rate. The risk of violence also becomes greater when employees exchange money with the public, work alone, or provide services and care.

Jobs With Increased Risk of Workplace Violence

Certain jobs have a higher risk of workplace violence than other jobs. These include customer service agents, delivery drivers, health care professionals, law enforcement personnel, and public service workers.

In 2000, homicide was the fourth most common cause of fatal workplace injuries in the country, trailing only transportation incidents; slips, trips and falls; and contact with objects and equipment. Specifically, violence and injuries due to other people or animals accounted for 705 fatalities. Retail and government agency roles produced the most fatalities, with 132 victims each. Leisure and hospitality industry roles were next (72 homicides), followed by public administration roles (68 homicides).

Warning Signs of Workplace Violence

While clear warning signs don’t always precede workplace violence, it may be possible to prevent violent escalation by paying attention to signs of troubled or disgruntled employees.

Some of these signs are directly work-related. These include inconsistent work quality, decreased productivity and attendance, a penchant for shifting blame to others, and a disrespect for authority.

Behavioral tendencies may also serve as a warning. These can include poor hygiene, inappropriate language, social isolation and unpredictable changes in energy levels.

Another potential warning sign of workplace violence can be related to physical and nonverbal cues.  These can include sweating, a flushed face, violent gestures and personal space violations.

These are not the only potential warning signs of workplace violence. Other signs can include a personal history of violence; threatening or intimidating behaviors, such as written or verbal threats; an increase in personal stress; and substance misuse.

These signs don’t necessarily indicate the potential for workplace violence. Some behavioral signs can also be indicative of other issues, such as depression, bereavement or illness.

The collateral damage from workplace violence can impact the workforce in several ways. Workplace violence can cause psychological damage; loss of staff; property damage; and increased costs relating to security, personnel and workers’ compensation.

Tips for Preventing Workplace Violence

Employers and managers have easy and free access to many government resources that can help stop a workplace incident before it starts.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration Tips for Preventing Workplace Violence

One of the key resources available to employers and managers is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This government agency offers several best practice tactics to help prevent workplace violence. These include establishing a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence, providing employee safety training, investing in security systems, encouraging employees to report erratic behaviors, and providing a “buddy system” or security escort service for nighttime employees.

OSHA also provides reference materials to prevent general workplace violence, as well as guidance for specific professions. These professions include health care and hospital workers, social service workers, taxi and ride-hailing drivers, late-night retail workers, restaurant servers, and drive-through restaurant workers.

Levels of Workplace Violence

Three key levels of workplace violence exist. Level one involves early warning signs. These manifest in intimidating, abusive and uncooperative behaviors and attitudes. Level two is the escalation stage, and signs at this level include arguments; insubordination; threats; victimization claims; and criminal behavior, such as theft. Level three involves further escalation that typically requires an emergency response. These can include physical altercations, suicidal threats, property destruction and the use of weapons.

Tips for Responding to Workplace Violence

Several strategies can be deployed in response to early warning signs. These can include observing and documenting behavior and reporting concerns to the appropriate supervisor. The supervisor should also meet with the employee in question privately; when this happens, the supervisor should directly identify the problem, ask the employee for input and establish a time frame for resolution.

The response to escalation also involves documenting observed behavior. It also involves calling 911 if necessary. Additionally, it involves immediately contacting the appropriate work person, such as a supervisor. The employee should also secure their personal safety if possible. The supervisor should also meet with the employee in question privately. The supervisor should also ask relevant questions regarding the employee’s issue, such as what the employee can do to regain self-control, how the supervisor can help, and what the employee wants to achieve by acting out.

If the response requires further escalation, the employee should call 911, and remain calm. The employee should also contact the appropriate work person, such as a supervisor, and secure their own personal safety. Additionally, the employee should leave the area if staying there poses a safety risk. Finally, it’s important for the employee to cooperate when law enforcement arrives.

Maintain a Safe, Secure Workplace

Thanks to the efforts of government agencies and employers, workplace homicide levels have decreased significantly in the past few decades. Safety, science and emergency management personnel must address the challenges of developing stronger preventive procedures to keep workplaces safe and secure.


Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, OSH Answers Fact Sheets

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, About OSHA

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Healthcare and Social Service Workers

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Workplace Violence, Overview

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Workplace Violence, Prevention Programs

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fatal Occupational Injuries by Event

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Center of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2020

U.S. Department of Justice, Indicators of Workplace Violence, 2019

U.S. Department of Labor, DOL Workplace Violence Program