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  • Writer's pictureRegion II

Workplace Violence and Security


"Columbine, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Excel Industries. What do these words have in common? Workers and students were killed in a place they thought safe. In fact, there is no workplace that is absolutely safe. Workplace violence has become far too common. Anyone or anyplace can be a target and the threat may be internal or external to the organization.

This article will focus primarily on internal threats and will present two significant issues regarding workplace violence: how to recognize the warning signs and the appropriate response and actions that should be taken. Before we address those issues, it is important that we define what we mean by workplace violence and work setting.

  • Workplace violence is any assault, violent act, threatening behavior, harassment, or verbal abuse that occurs in, or is related to, the work setting and entails a substantial risk of physical or emotional harm to individuals or damage to company resources or capabilities.

  • A work setting is any location either permanent or temporary where an employee performs any work-related duty. It includes, but is not limited to, the building, surrounding perimeters, parking lots, field locations, client’s homes and traveling to and from work assignments. Two of the most critical elements to limiting the occurrence of workplace violence are early recognition of potentially violent situations and plans to respond appropriately to such situations. Although OSHA recognizes the signi cance of the issue, it does not have a standard requiring such a program. It is up to the individual VPP safety and health leaders to lead the way.

As with other safety and health issues, the best starting point is to develop a plan to address the issue. It is up to all employees to learn how to recognize the warning signs of potential workplace violence and how to respond to those warning signs, as well as the actual violence. According to a poll of readers, the February 2016 issue of the National Safety Council’s Safety and Health Magazine reported that only 52 percent of employers have a workplace violence prevention program. Another 13 percent reported that they are working on one. That leaves another 35 percent with no workplace violence prevention plan.

A Workplace Violence Action Plan (WVAP) should be created in the same manner as other safety and health control programs. As with most other safety and health programs, it should be developed with assistance from all levels of the enterprise and subject matter experts. The program should define the issue and contain a statement of support from senior management that no evidence of workplace violence by employees or others will be tolerated and the sanctions for non-compliance will be severe. The program should: identify a champion for the program; define important terms; contain background information on

the issue; identify common telltale warning signs of impending violence; detail a plan of action to prevent potential events and develop procedures on how to respond to actual events. It must also include training for all employees regarding the usual warning signs and recommended response actions. The training should include actual response exercises similar to what is done for fire, hazardous materials spills or other emergencies.

Recognition of Potentially Violent Situations

Before we discuss the warning signs of potentially violent behavior, we will discuss some underlying causes of it. Negative personality changes may be caused by issues such as reactions to drugs (either properly prescribed medications or illegal drugs), illness or by response to emotional stressors including:

a. Death of a close family member or friend

b. Personal/family problems

c. Financial problems d. Health problems (self or loved one)

e. Family turmoil f. Loss of a promotion or job

Many of the warning signs of potentially violent situations are common and easy to recognize. Unfortunately, others are not so easy to recognize. Various categories of warning signs that may help to identify potential violent situations can be grouped so that the actual violence can be prevented or limited.

Initially, employees may exhibit minor negative personality changes that can then become more pronounced. These early, minor, negative personality changes may not be easily recognized: a. Confusion b. Frustration c. Blame d. Anger

Many of us have encountered and worked with others who are recognized as being unusually negative. That is distinctly different than the typically easy-going employee who begins to exhibit those same negative attitudes. That escalating negative behavior may be a precursor of impending violence. The following are some of those escalating negative behaviors that employees must be trained to recognize:

a. Withdrawal (loner)

b. Uncooperative

c. Defensive

d. Argumentative

e. Sudden, persistent complaining of unfair treatment

f. Missed schedules

g. Confusion/Frustration

h. Blaming others for problems

i. Decline in job performance

j. Increased tardiness or absenteeism

k. Refusal to accept criticism

l. Change of work habits

m. Verbally abusive

n. Strong anger

o. Threats to others

p. Overt hostility

These signs may be able to be mitigated through counseling and a workplace wellness program. However, these signs may also escalate to a higher level of violence that must be addressed immediately. Warning signs of hostility include:

a. Physical actions or threats that appear imminent

b. There is immediate danger of physical harm or property damage

c. Out-of-control behavior

Response to Potential Workplace Violence Incidents

When the signs of hostility are observed, the response section of the WVAP must be introduced. Initially, the best course of action would be to report the situation to a higher authority and notify law enforcement of the potential threat. The threat should be isolated and others should be removed from the danger zone. Other initial responses include:

a. Disengage from the person and evacuate the area

b. Attempt to isolate the person if it can be done safely

c. Alert your supervisor and contact security immediately

Some violent situations cannot be stopped; however, there are proven techniques that you can use and steps that can be taken to reduce an escalating situation. When dealing with a potentially violent person, the situation must be quickly assessed. Projecting calmness and speaking softly may help to diffuse the situation. Encourage the potentially violent person to talk, focusing your attention on them so they feel you are interested in what they have to say. Maintain a relaxed, yet attentive posture, and position yourself at a right angle rather than directly in front of the person. Respect the person’s private space. Ask for small, specific favors, such as moving to a quieter, more isolated, area to talk. Be reassuring and point out choices. Do not fake empathy or place blame. When dealing with a potentially violent situation, do not try to be the hero. Your focus should be diverting the aggressive individual and keeping others safe without putting yourself in harm’s way. Do not make promises you cannot keep, and do not make physical contact with the individual.

If all else fails

If attempts at de-escalation are not practical or effective, the final option is to follow the FBI’s recommendation to “Run, Hide, Fight” in that order. Warn others and move away from the violent person as quickly as possible and try to exit the area. If you cannot exit, try to get a barrier between you and the violent person, such as entering a room and locking and barricading the door. Block windows so you cannot be seen, and find a hiding space where you will be concealed. If access to your area by the violent person is imminent prepare to fight, improvising things in the area that can be used as a weapon such as a chair or fire extinguisher.

Improving Security

Security of the work setting may have to be improved based on a comprehensive security audit. The workplace should be analyzed, and include a review of the written security policies, procedures and training programs; a walkthrough of the entire facility to identify potential vulnerable areas; and employee interviews to identify any concerns or issues that may exist.

Security enhancements can be categorized as either physical or administrative. Physical enhancements result in hardening of the facility, and include things such as locks, CCTV monitors at entrances and key cards. Administrative enhancements are written policies and procedures and training programs which will heighten awareness and serve as a deterrent. A procedure to require identification prior to allowing entry to the work setting is an example of an administrative enhancement. Administrative enhancements are often quite effective, and relatively inexpensive when compared to physical hardening.


Putting together your WVAP includes five basic steps:

1. Assess your workplace and employees to determine potential risk and vulnerabilities.

2. Coordinate your plan with local law enforcement and emergency responders.

3. Implement the plan.

4. Exercise the plan at least annually with realistic scenarios. Invite local law enforcement and other emergency responders.

5. Based on the outcome of the exercise, it is likely that opportunities for improvement will be found. The WVAP can be improved and enhanced based on the lessons learned during the exercise.

(Brian Bennett is the president of EHS Excellence Consulting LLC, a full service safety and health consulting company that focuses on helping worksites enter the OSHA Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP). Previously, he worked as a safety and health manager at both the plant and corporate levels in the chemical manufacturing and research and development industry for 24 years. He has been involved with VPP since 1992. He holds several professional certi cations, including Certified Safety Professional and Certified Hazardous Materials Manager.

Dr. Bennett has served on the board of directors for Region II since 1999. He is also an OSHA VPP special government employee, having conducted over 40 onsite evaluations, and was the National SGE of the Year in 2006. Norman Deitch is the senior vice president of EHS Excellence Consulting LLC. Previously, he was the OSHA Region II VPP manager from 1989–2007. He has completed over 400 evaluations of safety and health management systems of large and small companies in both general industry and construction. He was on the team for the revision of the VPP Policies and Procedures Manual and the revisions to the VPP Federal Register. Mr. Deitch, with two other OSHA VPP managers, developed and wrote the current Special Government Employees Training Program. He holds the professional certification of Occupational Health and Safety Technologist and is a Special Government Employee and is an honorary member of the National VPPPA Board of Directors.)

(This article was featured in The Leader!)

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