Employers are legally responsible for providing a safe workplace for employees. This duty includes eliminating the risk of workplace violence. Federal law doesn't specify what preventive measures employers must take, instead, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers guidelines on how workers might protect themselves against violence. OSHA also cites employers who are found negligent.
Workplace Violence Defined
Employees must recognize all the characteristics of workplace violence. The FBI describes it as any behavior that causes fear, personal injury, property damage or death, and that generally disrupts the peace of a normal workday. Workplace violence is any form of intimidation, including threats, bullying, stalking, harassment, and physical or sexual assault. Work-related incidents that occur off work grounds are also classified as workplace violence.
All employees are vulnerable when workplace violence occurs. But certain occupations and work sites are at greater risk than others. Employees who exchange money with the public, such as retail and bank clerks, are at high risk. Delivery personnel and drivers who transport people, goods and services also face greater risk for workplace violence. People who work alone late at night or on early morning shifts and those who work in high-crime locations are often victims. OSHA identifies the most vulnerable occupations as visiting nurses, health-care providers in general, social workers, psychiatric evaluators, probation officers, utilities workers, taxi drivers and postal carriers.
Employers are largely responsible for taking precautions against workplace violence. But employees can lower the possibility of violence occurring or reoccurring. OSHA recommends that employees immediately alert supervisors about safety or security concerns and submit written reports on violent incidents. For instance, an employee who witnesses bullying or frequent on-site appearances by a co-worker's angry spouse should report these incidents. Visiting nurses, taxi drivers and others whose work takes them into the community should carry the least amount of identification or money needed on the job. And workers should avoid traveling alone to unfamiliar areas whenever possible.
Employees might need to remind negligent employers of their legal right to prosecute perpetrators of violence. They also might need to see that employers adopt zero-tolerance policies on workplace violence; investigate immediately all complaints of threats, assaults, harassment and other disruptive behavior; report incidents to the police; train workers in how to diffuse violence; and provide counseling for victims.
OSHA offers publications, training, educational programs and consultation to help employers handle workplace violence and minimize the risk to workers. Information is accessible online at the OSHA website. The agency has a policy for responding to complaints and incidents called Enforcement Procedures for Investigating or Inspecting Workplace Violence Incidents. OSHA field staff inspect work sites where violence has occurred or where workers might be at risk. Employees may file complaints with the agency by contacting the nearest OSHA office, under the U.S. Department of Labor, or calling the toll-free number.
Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.