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Is Workplace Violence on the Rise?

by Nancy Germond

What do the current economic environment and workplace violence have in common? Is there a correlation between the two? The economic downturn has certainly caused a lot of devastation, with many individuals losing their jobs, homes, and savings. Even employees who were lucky to survive their company’s layoffs still face workforce challenges since they must work harder to compensate for staff reductions and reduced budgets.

Many have suggested that all the economic and workplace turbulence has created “perfect storm” conditions for workplace violence, and acts of workplace violence are bound to increase. Although we may not know what impact the current economy will have on workplace violence until sometime in the distant future (since workplace violence statistics will reportedly take years to gather and analyze), it remains a growing concern for employers and employees.

HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including employee privacy, hiring, discipline, and documentation, and workplace violence

Workplace violence 101
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines workplace violence as “a physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting.” Workplace violence can vary from threats, intimidation, and harassment to violence, physical assault, and possibly homicide.

There are several different types of workplace violence based on who commits the violent act. Workplace violence perpetrators include the following:

  • strangers (e.g., robberies);
  • current or former employees;
  • individuals with personal relationships with employees (e.g., relatives, spouses, ex-spouses, etc.); or
  • customers, clients or contractors.

Workplace violence statistics
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), each year around two million workers in the United States are victims of workplace violence. Additionally, homicide, workplace violence’s most extreme form, is one of the leading causes of workplace deaths in the United States.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available), there were 864 fatal occupational injuries due to assaults and violent acts, including 628 workplace homicides. According to the BLS, out of the 5,657 total work-related deaths in the United States in 2007, 15 percent were attributable to assaults and violent acts, and 11 percent were attributable to homicide. In 2007, fatal work injuries resulting from assaults and violent acts increased from 2006 levels, and homicides outnumbered “struck by object fatalities” as the third most frequent fatal event for the first time since 2003.

Although dramatic violent incidents such as workplace homicides are the most publicized, this is not the only prevalent type of workplace violence. In fact, employee complaints of verbal abuse are so widespread that the Workplace Bullying Institute alleges in its April 2009 newsletter that “bullied employees are the first to go” when companies implement reductions in force.

An Employer’s Guide to Workplace Violence, Terrorism, and Natural Disasters

What occupations are most vulnerable?
Although violence can happen at any workplace, there is a greater risk for it in some industries and occupations.

According to OSHA, workers have a greater risk of becoming victims of workplace violence if they: exchange money with the public; deliver passengers, goods, or services; or “work alone or in small groups, during late night or early morning hours, in high-crime areas, or in community settings and homes where they have extensive contact with the public.”

Such high-risk occupations include police, detectives, security guards, retail workers, community workers (e.g., gas and water utility workers), phone and cable TV installers, letter carriers, and taxi drivers. The group also includes health care and social service workers, such as visiting nurses, psychiatric evaluators, and probation officers.

Mastering HR: Workplace Violence

Are injuries compensable under workers’ comp?
Although traumatic injuries resulting from workplace violence are often compensable under state workers’ compensation laws, a violent incident that occurs at the workplace may be unrelated to work. For example, domestic violence frequently spills over at work and the resultant injuries may not be compensable. A personal quarrel between coworkers, “bad blood” that turns violent, may also be found non-compensable under workers’ comp laws. For an injury to be compensable, there must be some causal relationship between the event — the violent act — and the employment.

Generally, workers’ comp coverage only exists for intentional injuries that “arise out of and in the course of employment,” and the fact that employees’ injuries are the result of an intentional act is usually not determinative. Since every state has its own workers’ comp laws, the availability of benefits for injuries resulting from workplace violence will vary from state to state. For example, under some states’ laws, a store cashier who is injured in a robbery may be eligible to receive workers’ comp benefits because he sustained the injury during the course of employment.

Depending on a state’s laws, injuries “arising out of employment” may mean one of two things. First, it could mean that the employment caused an increase in the risk of injury over the risk faced by the general public. Second, it could mean that the event wouldn’t have happened if the employment had not put the claimant in the position in which she was injured.

State-by-state comparison of 50 Employment Laws in 50 States, including guns in the workplace laws, drug testing, and background checks

A recent case involving a McDonald’s employee who was shot at work after he interfered in a domestic dispute has workers’ comp professionals discussing compensability. According to an article in the Arkansas Times, McDonald’s insurer denied the employee’s workers’ comp claim, stating the injury did not “arise out of or within the course and scope of employment.”

McDonald’s claims personnel may have decided that a claim denial was appropriate because the injured employee disobeyed a safety rule he was reportedly apprised of during his orientation. The safety rule warned workers not to be “heroes.” However, employees frequently flout safety rules, and although some states allow a reduction in benefits for failure to use safety equipment, failure to follow safety protocol is normally not a solid basis for claim denial.

A news report that shows surveillance footage of the Arkansas McDonald’s shooting can be found on YouTube

Compensability investigations
Determining whether an injury resulting from an act of violence is compensable or not requires a thorough investigation, and only an experienced professional should perform the fact-finding. Without a thorough investigation, decisions regarding compensability that can have long-lasting effects on your organization may be made hastily in the heat of the emotion that follows the event. After a violent event, claim denials can be a doubleedged sword. If your company’s insurance carrier or third-party administrator denies the workplace injury claim, your organization may be exposed to third-party liability if employees allege that your company failed to protect them. Injured employees may bring claims against their employers based on negligent hiring, negligent retention and supervision, negligent failure to provide a safe workplace, failure to prevent violence by nonemployees, etc.

Employers must tread carefully because even if the injury is covered by workers’ comp, victims of workplace violence in some states may still elect to pursue remedies against the employer other than workers’ comp. And, if employees are denied workers’ comp, they are only going to be even more likely to file another type of claim against their employer.

Preventing workplace violence
To help reduce the likelihood of violence in your organization, policies and procedures designed to limit violence are a necessity in today’s working world. Part of a workplace violence policy should include a simple policy statement that reinforces your organization’s stance prohibiting aggressive or harassing behavior.

However, simply having a policy in place may not help you or your employees if you do not frequently and consistently provide training on that policy. In addition, your organization may be exposed to liability if it fails to enact a workplace violence prevention policy or supervisors fail to take action when employees feel unsafe or harassed.

Organizations with both strong internal communication and supervisors who are trained to respond to inappropriate behavior are less likely to suffer workplace violence. Employees only feel safe to report aggressive or threatening coworkers when their organization consistently acts on small problems before such problems become major ones. Therefore, building a culture of twoway communication and exhibiting a “zero-tolerance” policy toward aggression and intimidation is critical to a healthy workplace.

Basic Training for Supervisors – easy-to-read training guides, including workplace violence

Bottom line
Whether workplace violence is actually on the rise or not, it’s still a good time to revisit the subject, review your policies, and make any necessary changes to ensure you are prepared. It is vital that you are proactive in implementing methods to prevent workplace violence from ever occurring in your workplace. If you are interested in more information on workplace violence, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management offers an excellent handbook that covers workplace violence complete with case studies.

Nancy Germond, MA, is the President of Insurance Writer, a risk-management consulting firm located in Phoenix, Arizona. She can be reached via her website at www.insurancewriter.com.