Health & Safety Insights

Workplace Violence - Recognizing & Responding to Threats

Date: 2/23/2022


According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workplace violence is “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.”

This ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide, and it can be perpetrated by anyone from current employees to former employees, an employee’s spouse, clients, visitors, customers or even criminals with no connection to the company.



Nearly 2 million Americans report having been victims of workplace violence each year. And those are just the cases that are reported.

The industries most at risk for violence in the workplace include health care, social services, security services, public administration, education, public transportation, retail and law enforcement. Employees may also be at a higher risk of violence if their jobs involve exchanging money with the public, customer service, working with volatile or unstable people, or working alone or in isolated areas.

Of course, companies in other industries can ill afford a false sense of security. The risk of workplace violence is a real one in any company.



Section 5 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act states that employers are required to furnish workplaces “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” In other words, employers have a duty to keep their employees safe from identifiable harm.

With the increase of workplace shootings in recent years, this kind of violence is beginning to be considered a “recognized hazard,” and employers have faced increased legal action following such incidents.



While preventing workplace violence isn’t an exact science, and employers won’t always be able to prevent a violent incident, there are steps employers can take to limit the risk of violence in the workplace.



In many instances, acts of workplace violence generated internally occur after a series of unheeded warning signs. A troubled employee may:

  • Make overt threats
  • Have antisocial tendencies
  • Exhibit major personality or behavioral changes
  • Show signs of severe depression
  • Display an unhealthy preoccupation with weapons
  • Verbally harass or abuse coworkers



Employers can help prevent workplace violence by:

  • Establishing a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence
  • Using the interview process to conduct background checks and identify red flags
  • Assessing potential threats to better protect the company against violence
  • Learning how to recognize, avoid or diffuse potentially violent situations
  • Documenting all incidents immediately
  • Providing employees and supervisors with workplace violence training


If an incident of workplace violence is reported, it’s critical to investigate the incident and take action according to your company’s workplace violence policy. Even if you can’t determine exactly what happened, going through the investigation and talking to the people involved shows that your company is taking the matter seriously.