A look at workplace violence
Warning signs and prevention strategies
Acts of workplace violence occur often – and across industries.
In 2020, 392 workplace homicides and more than 37,000 nonfatal injuries stemming from intentional harm from another person were recorded, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The leading worker groups in the homicide category: sales, followed by transportation and material moving.
Nonfatal assaults, meanwhile, were most common in the service industry, ahead of health care and education.
“The old methodology of, ‘Oh, it could never happen here’ – that has to go out of the window,” said Mike Britt, co-owner of Virginia-based Sentinel Security Group. “Because it can.”
Britt – who has nearly a quarter century of anti-terrorism and physical security experience and has held various military positions – learned of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX, in May 2022 while delivering workplace violence prevention training about an hour’s drive away from the scene.
To Britt, the tragedy reinforces the prevalence of a widespread problem facing employers.
Associate Editor Kevin Druley discusses this article on the May 2023 episode of Safety+Health's “On the Safe Side” podcast.
Warning signs of workplace violence
Speaking during a seminar at the 2022 NSC Safety Congress & Expo in San Diego, Lev Pobirsky, senior director of safety and security at Pepsi and chair of the National Safety Council’s community safety division, said workplace violence is “never out of the blue.”
People who commit workplace violence often have experienced a “crisis point” in the weeks or months before the event, such as the end of a relationship or loss of a job. Grievances related to overtime and perceived unfair labor practices or unequal treatment also may serve as a motive, noted Britt, who was a presenter at the 2021 NSC Safety Congress & Expo in Orlando.
Pobirsky and Britt say the following behaviors can be warning signs of violence:
- Increased drug or alcohol use
- Financial difficulties
- Excessive unexpected absences
- Unexplained outbursts of hostile behavior
- Quickly becoming agitated or upset with management, co-workers or supervisors
- Leaving work unexpectedly
- Intense anger
- Verbalizing negative actions, such as making “If I could …” statements
- Suicidal threats
- Property destruction
“Generally, things to look out for is when a good employee becomes not a great employee,” Pobirsky said. “Or if they’re already bad, now they’re really, really bad. Kind of on their way out. More argumentative, often more late, performance decreases. Just sort of a shift in attitude, in performance and output.”
The biggest takeaway of Britt’s workplace violence prevention training courses: the importance of speaking up.
“Say something. Talk to human resources,” Britt said. “If a co-worker starts acting different … to a point where you feel threatened or something is not quite right, talk to human resources. They have training. They know what to do legally. If not, they’ll get a hold of their legal team and understand a path to move forward.”
In extreme cases of threats or violence, workers and supervisors should contact law enforcement.
Still, experts stress the importance of providing de-escalation training to managers and supervisors – especially those in smaller organizations or shift work industries – in the event HR personnel are away from the office during an incident of hostility or violence.
Britt conceived a potential scenario.
“‘OK, well, we’ll handle this when HR gets in,’ or ‘We’ll handle this when the boss comes in tomorrow’ or ‘We’ll handle it later. Let’s just get back to work.’
“What did you just do? You just perpetuated that cycle one more day, one more shift, versus giving these first-line leaders some quality training or at least some training to handle a situation like that.”
Strategies for de-escalation include:
- Maintain neutral eye contact.
- Avoid crossing arms, pointing fingers and other body language that may be perceived as hostile.
- Use positive language.
- Speak calmly, asking the question from the perspective of the person who made the threat.
- Ask the hostile person to sit and write down what’s upsetting them.
Although each situation and person is different, Britt said, paying attention to body language is a uniform strategy that can be helpful.
“If they’re tense and then you say something and they relax their shoulders, that means, OK, they’re calming down. If they’re cross-armed, staring at you directly, that means they’re tense; they’re not really in attack mode, but they’re very aggressive. So there’s a lot of different things that you can read from somebody.”
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