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Shutterstock/ Sergey Nivens
Shutterstock/ Sergey Nivens

Roughly 2 million workers are victims of workplace violence every year. The number is likely much higher because many cases go unreported. In fact, it is estimated that 15% of all crimes committed in the United States are cases of workplace violence. As a result, it is very important to understand what it is and how to identify and prevent it from occurring.

Although currently no Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards specifically address workplace violence, it can be cited under the General Duty Clause in Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. This clause states that employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” Violence, whether random or predictable, is a “recognized hazard” where safety measures can be taken.

Workplace violence can include beatings, bullying, fights, homicide, obscene phone calls, physical assaults, physical threats, psychological traumas, sexual assaults, sexual harassment, shootings, stabbings, stalking, suicide, suicide attempts, vandalism, verbal abuse and more.

Unfortunately, it can happen anywhere and anytime, and the construction industry is not immune to this type of behavior. It can be high-pressure and result in confrontations that lead to violent acts. Fortunately, risk factors can be identified in most workplaces. Violent behavior can be prevented or minimized by taking some basic precautions.

All employers should have a workplace- violence prevention program in place, and employees should be trained on and be familiar with how to report instances of violence and warning signs that may lead to the threat of violence.

Early indicators of potentially violent behavior from co-workers include antisocial behavior, isolationism, a sense of superiority or righteousness, difficulty getting along with others, an inability to accept responsibility for mistakes, a propensity to hold grudges, a tendency to feel wronged or humiliated, verbally abusive behavior towards others, a fascination with guns or weapons, resistance toward authority, and regular displays of temper.

Additionally, there are five indicators or warning signs that are often precursors to violent behavior in the workplace: confusion, frustration, blame, anger and hostility. In the event that a person becomes violent, deliberate actions can be taken to mitigate the situation or help prevent these from occurring all together.

When encountering a potentially violent person, it is important to remain calm. When speaking to them, talk slowly, quietly and confidently. Avoid tones or mannerisms that could escalate the situation. The body should be positioned at a right angle to the person—as opposed to immediately in front of them—at least 3 to 6 feet away. Try to not to encroach on the individual’s personal space and make sure you are not positioned between the person and any exits.

Be empathetic and acknowledge their feelings. It is important to not criticize, threaten or challenge the person. Also avoid any sudden movements because it can be seen as threatening and make the situation worse. When the person is vocalizing specific reasons for their demeanor, be willing to accept criticisms. Also, consider asking them for possible solutions or recommendations to de-escalate the situation. However, do not promise anything to resolve the problem that is undeliverable.

Reasoning with the person by breaking down bigger problems into smaller, more manageable ones can be helpful. Avoid making their problem seem less serious than it actually is. In the event that the person cannot be reasoned with, call for help. Do not attempt to bargain with them or take sides. Explain to them potential consequences if their behavior persists.

Keep in mind instances of workplace violence are not always committed by an employee or co-worker. It can occur when someone comes onto a job site and commits a crime against a person or property or a worker may encounter violence from customers or clients.

Some job responsibilities and work environments have higher risk factors for violent encounters. These may include tasks such as carrying or exchanging money; working with volatile, unstable people; working alone in isolated or low-lit areas; and working in high-crime areas.

Whenever possible, employees should be dispatched in pairs while working in high-risk environments. Additionally, em- ployees should pay attention to their surroundings and potential risk factors and work in areas that are well-lit and protected by video surveillance.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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