Back to Basics, Personnel Safety

Back to Basics: How to Prevent Workplace Violence

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine how to prevent workplace violence.

In an increasingly dangerous world, the need for providing a safe workplace is even more important than in the past, whether that workplace is a healthcare facility, food service provider, lodging, retail, or something else.

Jim Sawyer, Director of Security Services at Seattle Children’s Hospital, was recently a guest speaker for a webinar entitled “Hard Targeting Your Workplace – Violence Prevention Strategies.” The online event was hosted by Total Security Advisor and BLR Media. It was co-sponsored by CEIA USA and Talkaphone.

Gun Violence

“The risk of domestic terrorism has grown seismically,” Sawyer said, adding that in 2020, “the murder rate was the highest since we started keeping records in 1960.” Specifically, he explained, “In July 2019, there were 42 mass shootings; in July 2020, 88.” Sawyer said that incidents of gun violence in the United States are 100 times higher than in the United Kingdom.

During the presentation, Sawyer cited a 2020 Gallup poll that found about 55% of Americans believe in more strict gun control, about 35% believe gun control laws should stay the same, and about 10% believe there should be less gun control. When it comes to workplace violence, “70% of workplace violence shootings are from disgruntled former staff or disgruntled employees,” he stated, adding that this fact can be used to help build up workplace security.

Sawyer said that for the modern safety/security planner, the key challenges are to know who is in your building and to prevent gun violence. As for the first, he advocates access control measures. Sawyer said, “You can have a welcoming environment, it doesn’t have to look like something from a Kagan movie, but you can hard target it.” He explained that he advocates access control measures such as screening visitors, issuing badges, separating sensitive areas from common areas, and having strong CCTV (closed circuit television) at entrances, stairwells, elevators, and loading docks. 

As for potential steps to prevent gun violence, Sawyer advocated having a “no weapons” policy, noting “two-thirds of businesses don’t have that” and such a policy can be established by a security manager but should be known by every staff person. He also advocated that such a policy be extended to parking lots.

“Employees say, if they pack, they can leave it in their car—it’s not a good idea,” he said, explaining that someone could break in and steal those weapons. “Forty percent of ugly crimes can happen in parking lots,” he said. He suggested that workplaces that prohibit weapons have appropriate and well-marked signage on the perimeters of their parking lots to this effect.


Sawyer advocates workplaces establish an anti-bullying policy. He said two-thirds of workers report that they see bullying on a weekly basis. “The numbers are numbing. They eclipse school bullying statistics, which we are understandably concerned about,” Sawyer said, adding that workplaces need to specifically cite bullying in their policies. “If you don’t have a policy that specifically identifies bullying, then you don’t have a policy.”

Sawyer advocates all employees respond immediately to any threats by using de-escalation techniques and immediately contacting security. He cautions against potential silos between human resources and security.

Signs of Weapons Concealment

“Eighty percent of threats go unreported,” Sawyer said, suggesting that workers be taught the Seven Signs of Weapon Concealment. Sawyer cited Michael Dorn, the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non-profit campus safety center. In a 2018 article, Dorn stated those seven signs include:

  1. Security check: touching and adjustment of the weapon
  2. Unnatural gait: failure to bend knees or walk naturally while appearing to be nervous
  3. Jacket sag: a sag in the pockets
  4. Hunchback stride: a bulge in front of or behind the armpit and an inability of the jacket to move naturally
  5. Bulges and the outline of a weapon
  6. Visible weapon
  7. Palming: staring directly at the victim or rubbing the weapon along the back of the victim

Domestic Violence

Sawyer noted that domestic violence can be brought to the workplace, especially in healthcare where “89% of the staff is female and 11% is male.” He added that “7 million women are stalked in this country every year. Eight to 12 women every day get killed in incidents of domestic violence, one in three women live in a concerning, dangerous situation.”

While employees tend to shy away from acknowledging a fellow colleague is the victim of a domestic violence situation, Sawyer said, “It’s everybody’s business if someone is threatened.” He believes workplaces should step up and support domestic violence victims through “lodging, alternative transportation, specialized parking, altered work schedule, trespass of an individual, and to identify the individual of the threatening party who should be known to all staff.”

High-Risk Areas

Sawyer advocates that security professionals pay close attention to high-risk areas of the workplace, which include parking lots, entrances/exits, human resources, common break areas, isolated private work areas, administration offices, cafeterias, stairwells, perimeter areas, and loading docks.

Parking Lots

In order to best protect parking lots, best practices he advocates include:

  • Having license plate cameras
  • Ensuring optimum lighting
  • Replacing defective lights
  • Ensuring a clear line of sight surveillance of three to seven feet
  • Reporting graffiti and tagging immediately
  • Having strong perimeter CCTV coverage
  • Parking lot signage
  • Park security vehicles there
  • Install emergency call boxes and phones
  • Restrict vegetation
  • Work with police to address perimeter loitering
  • Have segregated and gated parking lots for staff
  • Eliminate and address building to car proximity potential

Importance of Prevention

“Once you have an incident where someone gets shot and killed on your property or something really bad happens because perhaps some of these issues haven’t been attended to from a prevention standpoint the way they can—if that happens, it will change and impact an organization for decades to come and change the face of the organization,” Sawyer said.

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