HR Policies & Procedures

Combating Workplace Violence: What OSHA Has to Say

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no standard or regulation specifically addressing workplace violence, but employers’ responsibility to address violence is covered under the General Duty Clause of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. And that means employers need to be ready for the agency’s inspection and enforcement efforts.

bullyThe General Duty Clause states:

Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.

In 2011, OSHA issued a directive on how the clause should be applied to incidents of workplace violence. The directive, “Enforcement Procedures for Investigation or Inspecting Incidents of Workplace Violence,” is intended to establish uniform procedures for OSHA field staff responding to incidents and complaints of workplace violence and conducting inspections in industries considered vulnerable to workplace violence.

To prove a violation of the General Duty Clause, OSHA must show:

  • That a hazard posing a threat to the health and safety of employees exists.
  • That the hazard is recognized by the employer or the employer’s industry.
  • That the hazard is causing or is likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
  • That there was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard. The hazard must be correctable. To cite an employer for failing to address a hazard, OSHA must be able to show that there was something the employer could have reasonably done to correct it.

Prevention Guidelines

Although OSHA hasn’t issued any standard or regulation specifically addressing workplace violence, it has issued some industry-specific violence prevention guidelines. The guidelines are informational only and don’t impose any compliance obligations. However, employers that can demonstrate that they have effectively implemented the guidelines are less likely to be cited for violating the General Duty Clause.

OSHAs guidelines on combating workplace violence parallel its voluntary safety program guidelines in that they emphasize the importance of management commitment, employee involvement, worksite analysis, hazard prevention and control, and employee education and training. By way of example, OSHA’s violence prevention guidelines for healthcare and social service workers recommend:

  • Top management involvement in implementing a violence prevention program;
  • A written violence prevention program for larger organizations;
  • A threat assessment team to evaluate the employer’s vulnerability to violence;
  • Appropriate engineering controls – for example, enclosing nursing stations and using metal detectors;
  • Appropriate administrative work practices – for example, contingency plans to deal with violent patients; and
  • Staff training on security awareness and how to protect themselves when confronted with threats or violence.