Workplace Violence

Key Points

  • A safety and security expert says workplace violence is “never out of the blue.” People who commit violent acts or show hostility may have experienced the end of a relationship or the loss of a job, or hold a work-related grievance, for example.
  • Experts emphasize the importance of providing de-escalation training to managers and supervisors, especially those in smaller organizations or shift work industries.

Although OSHA doesn’t have an established standard regarding workplace violence, the agency offers resources related to risk factors, workplace violence prevention programs and training.

Warning Signs of Workplace Violence

Speaking during a seminar at the 2022 NSC Safety Congress & Expo in San Diego, Lev Pobirsky, senior director of safety and security at Pepsi and chair of the National Safety Council’s community safety division, said workplace violence is “never out of the blue.”

People who commit workplace violence often have experienced a “crisis point” in the weeks or months before the event, such as the end of a relationship or loss of a job. Grievances related to overtime and perceived unfair labor practices, or unequal treatment also may serve as a motive.

The following behaviors can be warning signs of violence:

  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Financial difficulties
  • Excessive unexpected absences
  • Unexplained outbursts of hostile behavior
  • Quickly becoming agitated or upset with management, co-workers, or supervisors
  • Leaving work unexpectedly
  • Intense anger
  • Verbalizing negative actions, such as making “If I could …” statements
  • Suicidal threats
  • Property destruction

“Generally, things to look out for is when a good employee becomes not a great employee,” Pobirsky said. “Or if they’re already bad, now they’re really, really bad. Kind of on their way out. More argumentative, often more late, performance decreases. Just sort of a shift in attitude, in performance and output.”

‘Say Something’

The biggest takeaway from violence prevention training courses is the importance of speaking up. Say something. Talk to human resources if a co-worker starts acting different … to a point where you feel threatened, or something is not quite right.

HR staff have the training and know what to do legally. In extreme cases of threats or violence, workers and supervisors should contact law enforcement. Still, experts stress the importance of providing de-escalation training to managers and supervisors – especially those in smaller organizations or shift work industries – in the event HR personnel are away from the office during an incident of hostility or violence.

Here is a conceived potential scenario: Response is delayed because HR is not in the building, or we’ll handle this later… let’s get back to work.

What happened here? The cycle was perpetuated one more day, one more shift, versus giving first-line leaders some quality training or at least some training to handle a situation like that.

Strategies for de-escalation include:

  • Maintain neutral eye contact.
  • Avoid crossing arms, pointing fingers, and other body language that may be perceived as hostile.
  • Use positive language.
  • Speak calmly, asking the question from the perspective of the person who made the threat.
  • Ask the hostile person to sit and write down what’s upsetting them.

Although each situation and person are different, paying attention to body language is a uniform strategy that can be helpful.

Engage Employees

NIOSH encourages employers to provide training on strategies to recognize, avoid, and respond to situations with the potential for violence. Violence is more likely in workplaces with managers who tolerate a toxic work environment amid a climate with constant uncertainty, inadequate security measures, and no workplace violence prevention program.

In contrast, workplaces with training and prevention programs, established disciplinary processes, and managers who understand and act on concerning behaviors are less likely to deal with acts of violence. Employers are encouraged to act on threats or offhand comments, even if an individual says they were just kidding.

Statements of intent that are threatening to any type of violent act, whether it be a joke or not, need to be dealt with immediately. Commitment from management and worker involvement are crucial. If your employees aren’t engaged, you’re not engaging them, they’re not going to tell you the issues that come up and you’re not going to solve them before it’s too late.

OSHA’s Perspective on Workplace Violence

Although OSHA doesn’t have an established standard regarding workplace violence, the agency offers online resources related to risk factors, workplace violence prevention programs and training.

OSHA recommends workplace violence prevention programs:

  • Establish a clear policy for workplace violence, verbal and nonverbal threats, and related actions.
  • Ensure no worker who reports or experiences workplace violence faces reprisal.
  • Encourage workers to promptly report incidents and suggest ways to reduce or eliminate risks.
  • Require incident records to assess risk and measure progress.
  • Create a comprehensive plan for maintaining security in the workplace, including establishing a liaison with law enforcement or others who can assist with workplace violence mitigation.

Go to to learn more.

The National Safety Council – in its Workplace Violence: Using Technology to Reduce Risk report – says that, in addition to mitigating the risk for violence, prevention plans also may produce:

  • Increased feelings of safety.
  • A rise in reporting confidence.
  • Higher levels of job satisfaction.
  • Reductions in insurance costs.
  • Strengthening of organizational safety culture.
  • Leveraging technology.

Spencer-SHE has been providing Safety, Health, and Environmental Compliance guidance since 1980. It’s important to make wellness a priority and remind employees that building good, healthy habits can improve both physical and mental health.

Contact us here to help you to develop and maintain a safe and healthy workforce.

If you, or someone you care about, feel overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, or like you want to harm yourself or others, call 911.

You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or text MHFA to 741741 to talk to a Crisis Text Line counselor.