Workplace violence has been in the news recently with the attack in San Berdino, California. So let’s talk about what it is. Workplace violence is violence or threat of violence against workers. It can occur in and outside the workplace and can range from threats and verbal abuse to assaults and homicide. This is a growing concern for employers as well as employees as it is one of the leading causes of job-related death. Some 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year. 18% of all crimes occur in the workplace. No one is immune to workplace violence and it can occur anywhere. Workers at higher risk are people who exchange money with the public; deliver passengers, goods, or services; or work alone, 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. There are four categories of workplace violence: violence by strangers committing robbery; violence by customers, clients or patients; violence by employees or supervisors; violence by domestic partners or relatives of employees. Robberies account for the majority of workplace homicides.

Five warning signs are confusion, frustration, blame, anger and hostility. Knowing how to respond at each stage can either escalate a situation or de-escalate a situation. If someone is confused, patiently ask them to clarify what they are saying and listen closely. Give factual information. When someone becomes frustrated, move them to a quiet location. Talk to them calmly and reassure them. Attempt to clarify their concerns. When someone moves to blame, disengage with the person and bring in a second part into the discussion. Use a teamwork approach and draw the person back to the facts. Focus on areas of agreement to help resolve the situation. Always show respect and concern. If a person goes to anger, don’t argue with them and don’t offer solutions. Prepare to evacuate the area or isolate the person. Contact your supervisor and security personnel. If a person is hostile, disengage with the person and evacuate the area. Isolate the person if able to do safely and alert your supervisor and contact security or 911 immediately.

The best thing employers can do to prevent workplace violence is to have a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence against or by their employees. They should establish a workplace prevention program and incorporate the information in an employee handbook. All employees should know the policy and understand that all claims will be investigated and remedied promptly. Employers can also offer training so employees know what conduct is unacceptable, what to do if they witness it or are subjected to it and how to protect themselves. Employers can secure the workplace by adding surveillance cameras, extra lighting and alarm systems. Employers can provide drop safes to limit the amount of cash on hand. Employers can equip field staff with cell phones and hand-held alarms or noise devices and require them to prepare a daily work plan and keep a contact person informed of their location throughout the day. Instruct employees not to enter any location where they feel unsafe and to have a “buddy system” or police assistance in potentially dangerous situations or at night. For home health-care providers, address the conduct of home visits, the presence of others in the home during visits, and the worker’s right to refuse to provide services in a clearly hazardous situation.

Employees can protect themselves by learning how to recognize, avoid, or diffuse potentially violent situations by attending personal safety training programs. They can alert supervisors to any concerns about safety and report all incidents immediately in writing. They should avoid traveling alone into unfamiliar locations or situations whenever possible. They should also only carry minimal amounts of money and required identification into community settings.

If an incident of workplace violence occurs, employers should do the following: encourage employees to report and log all incidents and threats of workplace violence; provide prompt medical evaluation and treatment after the incident; report violent incidents to the local police promptly; inform victims of their legal right to prosecute perpetrators; discuss the circumstances of the incident with staff members and share information about ways to avoid similar situations in the future; offer stress debriefing sessions and post-traumatic counseling services to help workers recover from a violent incident; investigate all violent incidents and threats; and discuss changes in the program during regular employee meetings.

We should all have a safe place to work and not have to worry about whether someone, either outside coming in or from within, wants to hurt us. We should be vigilant but not paranoid to the point that we suspect everyone of harm. There is a fine line between a credible threat and a witch hunt. Knowing the signs and how to protect yourself can be the best things to do.