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Through teaching, research and outreach, ILR generates and shares knowledge to solve human problems, manage and resolve conflict, establish best practices in the workplace and inform government policy.

Preventing Workplace Violence

Nellie J. Brown, director of ILR's Workplace Health and Safety Programs, is an expert on workplace violence.

Violence at work "… is becoming a growing concern around the country" New Haven Police Chief James Lewis said in The New York Times after a Yale University worker was found dead at her job.

Researcher Annie Le's funeral is Saturday in California.

Raymond Clark III, who worked at Yale with Le, has been charged with her murder.

Brown, in an interview about workplace violence and its prevention, said there is no specific "profile" of a potentially dangerous individual. "Profiles," she said, "can lead to unfair and destructive stereotyping of employees."

However, changes in a person's conduct can signal they are at risk for dangerous behavior, she said.

If an organization has encouraged employees to report incidents or warning signs, protecting their confidentiality as appropriate, then troubled employees may be able to get the help they need and serious incidents may be prevented, Brown said.

"An organization can reduce the risk of workplace violence by planning and being prepared to act swiftly to deal with threats, intimidation and other disruptive behavior at an early stage," she said.

Risk factors which have been common threads running through cases of workplace violence, Brown said, include:

  • interacting with the public
  • exchanging money
  • delivering services or goods
  • working late at night or during early morning hours
  • working alone
  • guarding valuables or property
  • dealing with violent people or volatile situations

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have a specific regulation dealing with workplace violence, she said.

Instead, Brown said, it draws upon the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which 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…"

OSHA has workplace violence prevention guidelines for health care and social services organizations, late-night retail establishments and taxicab drivers. OSHA does issue citations for workplace violence and has a recommended workplace violence prevention program, Brown said.

The New York state law on workplace violence prevention, which covers public sector employees, is similar in its requirements, including:

  • preparation of a clearly written company workplace violence policy statement
  • establishment of a threat assessment team
  • team-conducted workplace hazard assessment consisting of a site inspection, employee surveys and records review
  • hazard assessment results that can direct workplace hazard control and prevention
  • training and education on hazard control measures, employee responses and incident reporting, communication/behavior strategies to defuse confrontation.
  • conduct incident reporting, investigation, follow-up and evaluation
  • recordkeeping

If, despite prevention efforts, workplace violence occurs, an organization needs to be prepared to deal with critical incident stress and care for employees affected, Brown said.

A recovery plan helps people and organizations return to normal and make improvements in workplace violence prevention strategies, she said.

Research shows, Brown said, that employees who understand stress resulting from workplace violence and have an outlet and method by which to process their reactions can speed the recovery process, stay healthier, be more productive on the job and have less disruption in their home lives.

OSHA recommends workplace violence be defined to include:

  • Verbal harassment
  • Threats
  • Physical and sexual attacks
  • Murder
  • Arson
  • Sabotage

The occupational group at greatest risk of homicide is taxicab drivers. Brown said. For non-fatal assaults, workers in health care, community services and retail settings are at greatest risk.

In a recent survey of employers by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, violence workplace incidents appear to be more numerous in the public sector than in the private sector.

While news reports have tended to create the impression that most of workplace violence is the result of a disgruntled employee, statistics tell a different story, she said.

About 79 percent of workplace homicides occur during criminal acts such as robberies.

About 9 percent are committed by workers or former workers.

Some violent acts occur when the perpetrator has a legitimate relationship with the business, such as becoming violent during a business transaction or when being cared for as a patient in a health care situation.

A small percentage of cases, Brown said, occur when the perpetrator does not have relationship with the organization, but has a personal relationship with the intended victim.

An example of that scenario is a domestic violence victim assaulted at work by a perpetrator who knew the victim's work location, she said.

More information about Brown's work can be seen at http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/healthSafety/.