A Refresher on Workplace Violence Prevention Programs in the Wake of the Shooting Deaths at Virginia TV Station WDBJ


We have all heard the sad news about the death of two employees at Station WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia on August 26, 2015 by a former disgruntled employee of the station.  While stories like this may seem to be far removed from our day-to-day lives, and many employers believe they won’t happen at their place of business, the statistics say otherwise.  As such, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) have formulated workplace violence prevention programs to help employers implement appropriate steps to prevent, and respond to, violence in the workplace.

What is Violence in the Workplace?

OSHA defines “workplace violence” as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.  According to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), homicide is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States. CFOI statistics also show that nearly 2 million American employees have reported being victims of workplace violence each year but the number is likely much higher since many more cases go unreported.

OSHA has no specific regulations for preventing occupational violence. However, the OSHA General Duty Clause [29 USC 1900 5(a)(1)] requires employers to provide a safe and healthful working environment for all workers covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.  According to OSHA, this general duty includes protecting employees against violence or threats of violence.  According to OSHA, the CDC, and the NIOSH, threats of workplace violence can be placed into four different categories based on the relationship between the perpetrator and the target of the workplace violence:

  1. Type 1—Criminal Intent.

Violent acts by people who enter the workplace to commit a robbery or other crime—or current or former employees who enter the workplace with the intent to commit a crime.

  1. Type 2—Customer/Client/Patients.

Violence directed at employees by customers, clients, patients, students, inmates or any others to whom the employer provides a service.

  1. Type 3—Co-worker.

Violence against co-workers, supervisors, or managers by a current or former employee, supervisor, or manager.

  1. Type 4—Personal.

Violence in the workplace by someone who does not work there, but who is known to, or has a personal relationship with, an employee.

Domestic violence dominates the Type 4 violence category.  According to the American Institute on Domestic Violence (AIDV), 18,700 acts of violence are committed by intimate partners and spouses (current and former) every year against women in the workplace. When domestic violence follows an employee to work, the safety of the workplace is jeopardized.  In a recent national survey quoted by the AIDV, 94% of corporate security directors rank domestic violence as a high security risk at work.  Further, AIDV points out that domestic violence in the workplace is expensive:

  • Battered workers experience problems at work due to the abuse they endure at home, resulting in compromised productivity, increased absences and tardiness;
  • Each year, lost productivity and earnings due to intimate partner violence accounts for almost $1.8 billion; and
  • Victims lose nearly 8 million days of paid work each year, the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs.

For some companies, a prevailing corporate attitude or denial of the potential for workplace violence, may be strong enough that employers and managers remain unconvinced that they need to address it. Unfortunately, in some business environments, violence is not recognized as a high priority among competing threats until a tragic, violent event occurs.   For other companies, the reason workplace violence is not addressed is simply due to a lack of awareness of the scope and importance of the problem on the part of employers and employees alike.  However, OSHA believes that a well written and implemented Workplace Violence Prevention Program (WVPP), combined with engineering controls, administrative controls and training can reduce the incidence of workplace violence.  OSHA, along with the CDC and the NIOSH, has prepared helpful guidelines for employers to create and implement a WVPP.


What Should Private Employers Do to Prevent Workplace Violence?

Employers of all sizes should implement a WVPP that is appropriate for their workplace.  According to OSHA, the CDC and the NIOSH, an effective WVPP should include the following major components:

  1. A Workplace Violence Policy Statement that makes clear that the employer has zero tolerance for violence and expects all employees to comply with the WVPP.
  1. A Violence Prevention Team that is responsible for implementing and enforcing the employer’s WVPP.
  1. Violence Risk Assessment. The Violence Prevention Team should conduct an assessment of internal and external risks of violence to employees and make recommendations regarding prevention and response measures and protocols. An employer’s WVPP should reflect the level and nature of the potential threat faced by the employer and its employees. The potential for violence in a specific workplace requires a review and assessment of the vulnerability to the four categories of violence recognized by OSHA, the CDC, and the NIOSH: violence by strangers, client/customers, co-workers, and/or personal relations. Below are just some questions to consider when conducting a risk assessment:
  • Physical layout of facility: Any vulnerable areas?
  • Interaction with the public or strangers and any sources of risk?
  • Internal sources of stress among co-workers or between supervisors and employees?
  • outbursts at co-workers and customers or poor impulse control generally
  • verbal abuse or threats toward co-workers and customers
  • making harassing phone calls or email communications
  • strained workplace relationships
  • overreaction or resistance to minor changes in workplace routine
  • insubordination and belligerence
  • interest in firearms or other weapons, or access to weapons
  • signs of paranoia or withdrawal
  • fascination with violent acts or a history of violence
  • blaming others for one’s problems
  • obsessive compulsive behavior towards co-workers or supervisor
  • mood swings
  • comments about suicide
  • External risk factors:
  • substance abuse
  • domestic problems, including money troubles or family disputes
  • working alone or in small numbers
  • working late night/early morning
  • working with money
  • delivering passengers, goods or services
  • working in high crime areas
  • guarding property or possessions
  1. Violence Risk Control and Prevention. The Violence Prevention Team, with support of management, should adopt and implement the violence risk prevention and response measures and protocols.
  1. Employee Training. All employees, regardless of their position or level of risk, should be trained under the WVPP by the Violence Prevention Team.
  1. Incident Reporting. A written procedure for reporting violent incidents or threats of violence should be implemented for any acts of violence or threats of violence.
  1. A written procedure for investigating reports of violence or threats of violence should be followed by the Violence Prevention Team.  Investigations should focus on fact-finding to stop any existing violence or threats of violence, and prevent future acts of violence or threats of violence.
  1. Keeping records under the WVPP is important.  It will permit the employer to have relevant information to conduct risk assessments, identify training needs, and conduct program evaluation.  Also, the records may be required to fulfill the employer’s OSHA recordkeeping and reporting obligations regarding health and safety issues (including violence) in the workplace.

For more information see OSHA’s Enforcement Procedures for Investigating or Inspecting Workplace Violence Incidents, and the CDC/NIOSH’s Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies and Research Guideline.


Contributor:  Lizbeth V. West, Attorney at Law | Weintraub Tobin