Protecting against Workplace Violence

By Barrett, Stephen | Public Management, August 1997 | Go to article overview

Protecting against Workplace Violence

Barrett, Stephen, Public Management

Each day, public employees face the growing threat of workplace violence. While bombings such as the one at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City remain the extreme and statistically rare form of workplace violence, other forms have become alarmingly common. Federal, state, and local governments are struggling to protect their employees' safety, and it's no easy task. Government leaders face many challenges from a wide range of potential violence, but there are a number of things that can be done to provide protection in the workplace.

A Growing Threat

To put the problem in perspective, it's important to understand the magnitude of the threat that violence presents to American workers:

* Homicide now is the number one cause of death for women workers in the United States and the number three cause for all U.S. workers.

* Workplace homicide is the fastest growing homicide. There are more than 2 million workplace assaults in the United States each year. In addition, there are 16 million workers who are harassed and 6 million who are threatened.

* The rate at which supervisors are murdered at work has doubled since 1985.

* The U.S. Department of Justice found that one out of every six crimes occurs at the workplace.

As shocking as these statistics are, they probably underestimate the problem. A study by J. R. Lion, W. Snyder, and G. L. Merrill estimated that for every five workplace violence incidents that occur, only one is reported.

Government employees appear to be at even greater risk than private sector employees. In 1994, the Bureau of Justice reported that while government employees made up only 18 percent of the workforce from 1987 to 1992, 30 percent of workplace violence victims were federal, state, or local government employees. Further, with the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, federal employees' statistical risk of dying on the job as a result of workplace violence increased.

All employers have an ethical and legal duty to provide employees a safe, healthy work environment. The statistics clearly show that workplace violence now is a major cause of workplace injury and death. It's a foreseeable threat to worker safety, thus employers have a duty to take all reasonable precautions to prevent it.

Acknowledging this threat, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued guidelines clarifying an employer's obligation to provide a workplace free of known safety hazards, including violence. OSHA requires all employers to assess the risk posed by all threats to employee safety and to take reasonable steps to minimize such threats. Employers who fail to protect employees from known hazards, including violence, are liable for citations and fines that can reach $70,000.

The Perpetrators

One way to understand the phenomena of workplace violence is to explore its many manifestations. Here are OSHA's categories for workplace violence:

* Type I: The perpetrator has no legitimate relationship to the workplace and usually enters it to commit a robbery or other criminal act.

* Type II: The perpetrator is the recipient of services, e.g. a current or former client, patient, passenger, criminal suspect, or prisoner.

* Type III: The perpetrator has an employment-related involvement with the workplace. Usually this involves a current or former employee, supervisor or manager; a current or former spouse or lover of an employee; or a relative or friend of a current or former employee.

One of the most serious threats posed by perpetrators with no legitimate relationship to the workplace (Type I) comes from people who hold strong antigovernment beliefs. Local governments should realize that the anger and resentment these individuals hold toward the federal government easily generalizes to state, county, or city entities. While many individuals focus their rhetoric on federal actions like Ruby Ridge and Waco, they can view local officials with the same suspicion, resentment, and distrust. …

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