Back to Basics, Personnel Safety

Back to Basics: Workplace Violence Prevention

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine workplace violence and OSHA’s recommendations for prevention.

As COVID-19 regulations shift and employees start to reenter the workplace again in-person, EHS leaders need to be prepared to deal with the challenges that will come with returning to work. Workplace violence continues to be a cause for concern, and now that people are going to be working side by side again, it is crucial that EHS professionals know how to handle situations that may potentially arise.


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, ranging from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide. Anyone can be a victim of workplace violence, including employees, clients, customers, and visitors. According to OSHA, workplace violence is the third-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States, with around 2 million victims, and many cases go unreported.

Workers in certain occupations are at a higher risk than others, including in workplaces that involve money exchange with the public, volatile or unstable people, providing care, and anywhere that serves alcohol. Additionally, working in isolated areas or high-risk areas and working late at night can increase the likelihood of violent incidents. OSHA says that delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents, law enforcement personnel, and those who work alone or in small groups are at a higher risk of workplace violence.

OSHA requirements

Though there are no specific OSHA standards for workplace violence, employers are required to provide their employees with a workplace free from “recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” under the OSH Act of 1970. This includes workplace violence, and OSHA clearly states that employers who do not take reasonable steps to prevent a recognized violence hazard in the workplace can face citation. OSHA has guidance for inspection procedures and issuing citations related to workplace violence hazards, which covers national, regional, and local emphasis programs and recommendations on how to respond to incidents.

For employers

OSHA recommends that employers establish a zero-tolerance policy towards workplace violence that covers all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come across company personnel. Employers should also create and implement a workplace violence prevention program that is included in the accident prevention programs, the employee handbook, and the manual of standard operating procedures. All employees should know the policy and employers should ensure them that each incident will be met with an investigation and proper resolution.

Employers should provide the following protections:

  • Provide safety education for employees so they know what conduct is unacceptable, what to do if they witness or experience workplace violence, and how to protect themselves.
  • Secure the workplace by installing alarm systems and video surveillance where it is appropriate, and minimize access by outsiders through identification badges, electronic keys, and guards.
  • Provide drop safes to limit the amount of on-hand cash, and keep cash in registers to a minimum in evenings and at night.
  • Equip field staff with cellular phones and handheld alarms or noise devices, require them to prepare a daily work plan and keep a contact person informed of their location, and keep employer-provided vehicles maintained.
  • Instruct employees not to enter locations that make them feel unsafe, and implement a “buddy system” or provide an escort that can be there at night or in potentially dangerous situations.
  • Develop policies and procedures covering visits by home healthcare providers, address the conduct of home visits, the presence of others during visits, and the worker’s right to refuse to provide services in clearly hazardous situations.

If a workplace violence incident occurs, there are several steps that employers should take, says OSHA. First, encourage employees to report and log all incidents and threats of workplace violence. Provide prompt medical evaluations and treatment after the incident, and report violent incidents to the local police as soon as possible. Be sure to inform victims of their legal right to prosecute the perpetrators.

Employers should discuss the circumstances of the incident with staff members and encourage employees to share information and come up with ways to avoid similar situations that could occur. Offer stress debriefing sessions and post-traumatic counseling services to help workers recover, investigate all violent incidents and threats, and monitor trends in each incident to put preventive policies and corrective actions in place. Finally, make sure to discuss changes in the violence prevention programs in regular employee meetings, so that all workers have the proper updated information.

For more information on OSHA’s recommendations, click here, and for more specific details on enforcement, click here.