Workplace violence makes headlines when a shooter, usually a disgruntled former employee or an angry relative of a current employee, attacks within a workplace, but the phenomenon is far more common than the media report. Each year, about 2 million workers in America are victims of workplace violence, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
According to U.S. federal regulations, workplace violence is defined as harmful physical acts such as hitting, beating, kicking, stabbing or shooting, as well verbal abuse and the threat of harm. If the action or threat is related to employment, it is covered under these regulations even if it occurs outside the workplace.
In 2011, violence was second highest cause of workplace fatalities, responsible for 17 percent of total job-related deaths, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was slightly more prevalent than equipment mishaps, which accounted for 15 percent; and falls, slips and tripping, which led to 14 percent of deaths in the workplace. The leading cause was transportation accidents, which were responsible for 41 percent of workplace fatalities, according to the BLS.
The Gender Factor
Women are much more likely to be killed at work by a spouse or domestic partner, while men are more likely to die at the hands of robbers or other assailants. In 2011, 39 percent of women killed in the workplace were victims of a spouse or domestic partner; 22 percent died during a robbery and 12 percent were killed by other assailants. By contrast, only 2 percent of male work-related homicide victims were attacked by a spouse or domestic partner, while 22 percent were killed by robbers and 27 percent met their deaths at the hands of other assailants.
The majority of workplace violence comes not from disgruntled employees, angry coworkers or enraged lovers, but from robbers and other assailants who have no connection to the victim. In fact, robbers and assailants caused 75 percent of work-related deaths between 1997 and 2010, according to the BLS. For this reason, workers who have contact with the public, such as retail employees, social workers, visiting nurses, taxi drivers and utility company employees, are more vulnerable to job-related violence. For example, between 2003 and 2008, homicide was the number one cause of workplace deaths in the retail sector; two-thirds of these deaths occurred among food and beverage or gas station employees. Retail employees also suffered 8,700 nonfatal attacks in the workplace during the same period, according to the BLS.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires employers to ensure the workplace is free of hazards that are likely to cause physical harm. Employers can help improve workplace safety by installing security equipment such as extra lighting, alarm systems and video surveillance. In non-retail environments, employers also can improve safety by restricting outside access through the use of guards, identification badges and electronic entry systems as well as training employees how to recognize suspicious behavior.
- US Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Workplace Violence
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Injuries, Illnesses and Fatalities
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Homicides by Selected Characteristics, 1997-2010
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics: Beyond Bad Tipping: Workplace Hazards of Food and Beverage Servers, 2003-08
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Assaults and Violent Acts in the Private Retail Trade Sector, 2003—2008
- US Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Guidelines for Preventing Workplace Violence for Health Care & Social Service Workers
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.