It can happen to you: Workplace violence claims lives and costs billions each year

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

About 551 people were victims of workplace homicide each year between 2006 and 2010, according to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s  Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Strategos International Executive Vice President Mark Warren works to train employers and employees to recognize the signs of violent incidents and work to de-escalate situations. During his presentation at TCA’s 38th Annual Safety and Security Division Meeting, he talked about awareness and overcoming denial.

The first step in preparing a business to prevent and respond to violent incidents is accepting that the risk exists.

“There is always some level of risk,” Warren said. “It is about getting people to accept that every location has some risk.”

While some types of incidents may be more headline-grabbing than others, there are several types of workplace violence company leaders should know about. Warren defined workplace violence as “any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting.”

By that definition, workplace violence includes the following types of behavior:

  • Beatings

  • Stabbings

  • Suicides

  • Shootings

  • Rapes

  • Threats or obscene phone calls

  • Intimidation

  • Harassment of any nature

  • Being followed, stalked, cursed or shouted at

  • Psychological traumas

Homicide is the most discussed, and most extreme, iteration of workplace violence.

“In 2010, CFOI reported a total of 518 workplace homicides, or 11 percent of all fatal work injuries that occurred that year,” according to fact sheet from BLS. “A total of 77 of those were multiple-fatality homicide incidents in which two or more workers were killed, including 69 homicides and 8 assailant suicides, all of whom were in work status at the time of the incident.”

The bureau reported that about 78 percent of workplace homicides in 2010, the latest year with available data, resulted from shootings, and about 83 percent of those shooting occurred in the private sector.

The number of workplace homicides has dropped sharply since the 1990s. Between 1992 and 1995, there were over 1,000 workplace homicides each year. The number steadily dropped for several years after 1995 before stagnating in the low-to-mid 500s around 2006, according to BLS data.

While the chances of a workplace homicide are relatively slim, the cost to an organization in the event that something does happen can be quite high, according to Warren. Those costs include loss of life, physical and psychological repercussions felt by both the victims and their families, loss of productivity and morale and various public relations impacts.

When breaking it down by dollars and cents, the U.S. Department of Justice found that victims of violence in the workplace miss 1.8 million days of work each year, resulting in more than $55 million in lost wages. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates the annual cost of workplace violence for employers to be close to $121 billion.

“What would it do if only one person in your organization was murdered at work? How would it forever change the organization?,” Warren asked the audience. “How would people feel about showing up for work the next day or two weeks from now or a month from now?”

Warren examined common sources of workplace violence and the factors thought to contribute to violent incidents.

Violent events can come from a variety of sources, including strangers, customers and clients, coworkers, domestic relationships gone bad and enemies that may be seeking retribution.

The two biggest sources of violence tend to be inside threats, like coworkers, and domestic relationships that have gone sour, according to Warren.

“The type of assailants in these cases differed, depending on whether the victim was a man or a woman. Robbers and other assailants accounted for 72 percent of homicides to men, for example, and only 37 percent of homicides to women,” according to the BLS fact sheet. “A substantial difference exists when relatives and other personal acquaintances are the assailants: only 3 percent of homicides to men, but 39 percent to women.”

Warren listed several contributing factors to workplace violence, including:

  • Downsizing

  • Reorganizing departments

  • Layoffs

  • Growth of technology

  • Recession

  • Mergers

  • Unemployment

  • Fear of losing job

  • Outsourcing labor

  • Reprimands for violations of company rules

  • Poor work performance reviews

  • Trouble with interpersonal relationships and working with others

  • Abusive management practices

  • Understaffing

Warren encouraged attendees to adopt an attitude of awareness surrounding workplace violence.

“Most human behavior is preceded by body language, verbal clues and behavioral indicators of advance warning of future intentions,” Warren said. “A state of awareness, through education and diligence, allows us to prevent or de-escalate crisis situations that are in progress or have already occurred.”

One key part of becoming more aware is overcoming normalcy bias. Warren defined normalcy violence as “a mental state of denial individuals enter into when facing a disaster or pending danger.”

Normalcy bias can lead people to underestimate, minimize or rationalize the crisis away, according to Warren. It can cause people to fail to prepare or respond to an event because it leads people to believe that since something has never happened before, it will not happen in the future.

We cannot respond to a crisis until we accept that a crisis may occur.