Violence in the Workplace
By Gwynne Hunt
(from The Rag 2005 but still current as nothing has changed-I did not however update stats from 2005)
There aren’t a lot of statistics or facts as the data on workplace violence is inadequate, but violence in the workplace does present a lot of concern, particularly for women in the workplace. There are four types of workplace violence: violence committed by clients or patients, violence associated with robbery or other crimes, violence among co-workers and managers, and domestic violence that spills over in to the workplace.
The violence we read about in the papers is not reflective of the many accounts of violence that go unreported or do not result in a fatality. Workplace violence includes lack of respect, physical or verbal threats, harassment, bullying, intimidation and assault.
Internal workplace violence is caused by a number of factors; workplace stress, rigid management styles, multicultural workplaces, workplaces that lack conflict resolution skills or that allow sexual harassment, downsizing and too many bosses. The bottom line is that the person who is subject to workplace violence blames themselves, is less productive, suffers from their own stress, can have sleep and digestive disturbances, reduced self-esteem and is seen by co-workers as weak and less competent. It is not uncommon for an individual to quit or be fired under these circumstances.
Unions and employers should identify workplace difficulties and put a stop to them. External violence on the other hand, is not so easy to control. We usually only hear about rape, homicide, stalking and robbery. And only when the story hits the papers. But there are other examples of violent behavior like physical attacks, spitting, scratching, pinching, squeezing, harassment and abuse that can happen on a job site by customers, patients or students. The worst assaults of course come from criminals, drug-affected individuals and domestic violence.
According to the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Health and Safety Branch, Provincial Canadian Statistics on workplace violence are hard to gather and even Canadian agencies rely on United States statistics. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey in the United States in the year 2000 almost 14,000 women were victims of workplace violence. In 2001, 145 women died as a result of an assault of a violent act in the workplace.
Although Canadian stats would be lower, the percentages would likely remain consistent. In the US, 31% of women who are killed at work, die as a result of an assault of a violent act. Nonfatal assaults like rape and robbery will occur about 15% of the time when the woman is at work. The victims of crime in the workplace tend to be nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, custodial care providers, junior high school workers and convenience store clerks.
How do you prevent workplace violence? There are three approaches; environmental, organizational and behavioral. Often the workplace environment just isn’t safe; poor lighting, unsafe entrances, no security hardware in place, no cameras, or no mobile phones for field personnel. The above items seem to be common sense and easy systems to put in to place to help keep women safe at work.
I know a lot of university campus parking lots have women parking only sections with lots of lighting and security personnel available to walk the student or teacher to her car. But even those these safety features are in place you see young women strolling out to the darker parking lots or not asking to be walked to their car. Women, themselves have to start recognizing how unsafe it is and take precautions.
My daughter was stalked when she was about twenty and I believe my years of paranoid mothering kept her safe. Or maybe, because she was had been receiving prank phone calls she was cautious. While she was a college student she worked at a bar and coming out one night she got in her car and realized she had a flat. Her instinct told her not to get out of the car to look at the flat, as we all tend to do, and she drove to the nearest police station and attended to her flat there. It was one of the scenarios I had painted for her on one of my late night topics on trusting nobody after dark. Sometimes a little common sense can save us from harm.
Her employer should have used the environmental approach to ensure the safety of the employees, like proper lighting and someone to walk the young girls to their cars when they got off work.
The organizational approach to safety in the workplace comes down to developing programs, policies and work practices. Top priority should be additional staffing, and a ban on verbal abuse in the workplace. The behavioral approach would include training staff. It is the employer’s responsibility to maintain a safe workplace for their staff.
How often do we hear that an employee just ‘lost it’ one day. Co-workers and management have usually seen signs that there might be potential for problems but obviously in these cases nothing was done. Nobody on the job should play hero if a co-worker or customer is behaving in an aggressive manner.
Doing research on workplace violence I didn’t find a lot of helpful information beyond the obvious. If facing a violent person; stay calm, listen carefully, try to be understanding, and use delay tactics to get to a safe place. The best defense would be to learn to identify troublemakers before violence erupts. There probably isn’t much that anyone can do about random acts of violence if the company you work for has not provided the necessary safety measures like proper lighting and adequate staffing.
We know workplace violence exists and fortunately the number of incidents is relatively small, but as workers, we need to raise our voices to prevent the problem from escalating. Report incidents to your employer, call your union representative if you have concerns, and don’t take chances. No job is worth working in an unsafe environment.