Chapter 21, Section 3

Workplace Violence:
Its Nature and Extent

Abstract: Workplace violence is a deadly aspect of modern day society. It is relatively widespread and when it occurs the results of workplace violence can often severe long-range impacts on both the employer and employees. The prediction of violence is very imprecise. There are certain factors that seem to be present in most of the reported cases of workplace violence. These factors should be considered when evaluating risk of potential situations of workplace violence.

Learning Objectives: Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the following concepts:

1. The scope of violence occurring at workplaces across the United States.

2. What acts are included in the definition of workplace violence.

3. The nature and characteristics of workplace violence.

4. The dynamics of predicting dangerousness.

Statistical Overview

What Is Violence in the Workplace?

Workplace Violence

Newspapers, magazines and the electronic media bombard us on a daily basis with the danger and violence that awaits us when we arrive at work. A rash of books has suddenly appeared in the market place dealing with workplace violence. This reaction to the phenomenon of workplace violence is not limited to the popular press. Prominent legal journals have recently published articles stating, "Workplace violence, often perpetrated by disgruntled employees, has reached epidemic proportions in the United States" (Barford and Tseng, 1994). Personnel journals publish accounts of violence in the workplace and discuss alternatives available to those professionals in the field of human resources. (Anfuso, 1994) The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor states that its mission is to assure as far as possible every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions. The federal government is not the only agency that regulates hazards within the workplace. States also have laws, regulations, and rules that govern working conditions. Additionally, there are general state and federal criminal codes that control acts of violence within the employment arena.


One of the major problems in this emerging area is the lack of a unanimous definition of either violence or what constitutes the workplace. It should be obvious that before the extent of workplace violence can be determined, a definition must be agreed upon. Several texts on the market discuss and analyze workplace violence but do not include a definition.(Baron, 1993; Mantell, 1994)


The workplace can and does take many shapes, forms and varieties. It may be a skyscraper in New York, a packing shed in California or even an eighteen-wheeler traveling down the interstate.

When counting injuries and fatalities, the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics defines workplace as follows: "any location where a person is employed (working for pay, compensation, or profit) at the time of the event, or where a person is engaged in legal work activity, or present at a site of the incident as a requirement of his or her job" (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1994).

In essence, a workplace is any location where a person carries out work-related functions. The Department of Labor does not include in its definition fatalities that occur when a person is commuting to or from work. It should be noted that this definition is broader than those used by other federal and state agencies administering specific laws or regulations. This definition does not require that the injured person be the one conducting work-related functions. As will be seen, individuals who are innocent bystanders at a work location can also become victims.


The more difficult and controversial definition is violence.

The Department of Labor defines injury as: "any intentional or unintentional wound, or damage to the body resulting from acute exposure to energy, such as heat or electricity or kinetic energy from a crash, or from the absence of essentials as heat or oxygen caused by a specific event or a series of events" (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1994).

Work-related illnesses are excluded from this definition because of the difficulty associated with linking illnesses to the workplace. Weiner and Wolfgang (1989) have defined violence as including:

"Actual or threatened, knowing or intentional application of statutorily impermissible physical force by one person directly against one or more other persons . . . for the purpose of securing some end against the will or without the consent of the other person or persons."

However, violence as used in this context is more than simple physical force. It can be as deadly as a shotgun blast to the chest or as simple as a slap to the face. Additionally, violence should and does include the establishment and maintenance of an oppressive work environment. In other words, violence in the workplace includes sexual harassment.

While the popular view of sexual harassment is that females are always the victim, this perception is not correct. Males have been victims of sexual harassment by females and even other males. Therefore, workplace violence is any form of nonconsensual verbal or physical actions carried out by one person or persons upon another within the working environment.

Nature and Extent of Workplace Violence

On a daily basis the news media report injuries and death in the workplace. Whenever the actions of the perpetrator result in more than one killing, it is usually the lead story on the evening news. Do we live in an environment that requires metal detectors at the entrance to every office? Is the workplace so dangerous that we should arm ourselves as we leave home?

In 1993, the Northwestern National Life Insurance company conducted a survey on workplace violence. The survey was based upon telephone interviews with 600 full time civilian workers excluding business owners and sole proprietorships. Workers were employees who worked 35 hours or more for eight hours a day between July 1992 and July 1993.

Northwestern National did not specifically establish a definition for workplace violence. However, it appears that three elements comprised the criteria used to establish violence at the job site:

Northwestern National used common lay terms rather than technical legal terms in establishing these definitions:

Northwestern National found that violence in the workplace is commonplace. Using its survey of 600 workers to project results for the entire working population of the United States, Northwestern National reports that:

(The above statistics are from: Northwestern National Life, Executive Summary, 1993)

Workers with employers who reported effective human resource programs such as grievance procedures, protection from and recourse for harassment, and security programs had lower rates of workplace violence. For example, only 18 percent of those employees whose employer had a grievance, harassment and security program reported being attacked, threatened or harassed in the past 12 months, versus 31 percent of the employees whose job did not have such programs. Northwestern National concludes that improved interpersonal relations and effective prevention programs can significantly reduce the levels of violence in the workplace.

In August 1993, the Center for Disease Control issued its National Profile: Fatal Injuries to Workers in the United States, 1980-1989: A Decade of Surveillance. The National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities (NTOF) surveillance system was developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The purpose of this system was to provide information regarding work-related injury deaths in the United States. Information in the NTOF system was taken directly from death certificates filed in the 50 states, New York City and the District of Columbia for workers 16 years and older who died as a result of an injury at work. Some scholars have criticized using only death certificates as a means of measuring injury or death while at work (Russel and Conroy, 1991). Motor vehicle crashes and homicides are external causes of death that may be missed when using death certificates to establish occupational injuries.

The leading causes of death in the workplace in the United States were motor vehicle crashes (23%), machine-related incidents (14%) and homicides (12%). Homicides accounted for the highest fatality rate per 100,00 workers in the occupation divisions sales (1.4), service (1.1) and executive/administrators/managers (0.9). The rates for homicide are three times as high for males compared to females, but females are more likely to be killed as a result of a homicide in the workplace than from any other cause. The Center for Disease Control ended its report with the startling fact that more than 17 workers die each day from an injury at work.

Violence and Theft in the Workplace

In July 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report entitled Violence and Theft in the Workplace. This report indicated that each year, nearly one million persons become victims of violent crimes while working. Workplace violence is expensive. This type of crime costs an average of 3.5 days off work per incident. This translates into over 55 million dollars in lost wages annually, not including days covered by sick and annual leave. Over 30% of workplace victims faced armed offenders. Almost one-third of these offenders had a handgun. Six out of ten incidents of workplace violence occurred in private companies. While governmental employees make up approximately 18% of the U.S. workforce, 30% of the victims of workplace violence were federal, state or local governmental employees. This high percentage of incidents may be caused by several factors including certain governmental occupations that carry a high risk of violence such as peace officers.

Homicide in the Workplace

In September 1994, the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, 1993, which determined that there were 6,271 deaths in the workplace in 1993. Homicide was the second leading cause of job-related deaths in 1993, resulting in 1,063 deaths. This form of workplace violence accounted for 17 percent of all fatally injured workers during that year. Approximately one in seven workers was killed by a work or personal acquaintance. Homicide was the most frequent cause of deaths of women in the workplace, accounting for 39 percent of all women's fatal injuries.

Understanding the Nature of the Workplace Violence

It appears that no location within the workplace is absolutely safe. One out of every seven fatal incidents occurred in a building open to the public, such as a grocery store or other retail store, restaurant, office building or school. Of the approximately 200 deaths that occurred in a parking lot or garage, about 50% were homicides.

Assaults and other violent acts made up 21% or 1,309 of the total fatal injuries in 1993. Guns were the weapons most often used, accounting for 14% of all deaths or 875 times. Knives or other sharp or pointed objects were the second choice for inflicting fatal injuries on workers. These instruments accounted for two percent or 95 deaths during 1993.

Men are more likely than women to be attacked by a stranger, while women were more likely to be attacked by someone known to them. Five percent of women attacked in the workplace were assaulted by a husband, an ex-husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend. Sixty percent of all women attacked in the workplace knew the assailant.

According to the federal government, an average of fifteen people are murdered at work each week in this country (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1993). The Center for Disease Control (1993) states that workplace homicide is a serious public health problem that demands our attention. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that during one week, an owner of a pawn shop, a convenience store clerk, a psychologist, two sanitation managers, a tavern owner, a fisherman, a cook, two cab drivers, a co-owner of a furniture store, a restaurant manager, a maintenance supervisor, a video store owner and a postal carrier were all victims of workplace violence -- they were murdered on their jobs.

Have we become a more violent society in the workplace? At first glance, it might appear as if the workplace has become a war zone. However, by adding other figures, workplace violence takes on another perspective. Surprisingly, the statistics from NTOF show a dramatic lowering in the number of deaths over the last 10 years. During the last decade, the number of fatal injuries decreased from a high of 7,405 in 1980 to 5,714 in 1989. This represents a 23% decrease in deaths over a 10-year period.

The United States Department of Labor estimates that there is a total national workforce of 121 million people. Based upon the National Census of Fatal Injuries figure of 1063 homicides, which further indicated that approximately 14% all those homicides were committed by a co-worker or personal associate, the figure states that approximately 149 workers died at the hands of someone they knew or with whom they worked. Using these figures, the odds of being killed by someone you know or work with are approximately one in 812,080. The National Weather Service projects the odds of being struck by lighting at one in 600,000.

The fact that workplace homicide is considerably less prevalent than the media and some consultants would have us believe does not diminish the tragedy of preventable death in the workplace. Employers and those charged with the safety of their company's job site still need to be alert to possible incidents of violence.

Characteristics of Perpetrators of Workplace Violence

Is it possible to establish a set of characteristics for those who commit acts of aggression in the workplace? Scholars and researchers have difficulty in agreeing on the definition of workplace violence; therefore it is not surprising that we have not yet established a list of characteristics of those who may commit aggression at the job site. However, by combining scientific and academic studies, with reports from the popular media, it is possible to list some characteristics that should cause professionals to be more suspicious or careful in any given situation. The following is a brief list of some of the more common characteristics:

Prior Verbal Threats: If the employee engages in threatening conduct toward other employees or supervisors, this threat should be taken seriously and the employer should respond in an appropriate manner.

Intimidating Behavior: The employee may exhibit any of the following behaviors: repeated phone calls to the victim, following the victim, and/or leaving messages for the victim.

Mental Health Problems: Depression, fantasies, irrational/violent thoughts, paranoid delusions, and extreme mood swings all may indicate a potential for workplace violence.

Obsessions: The employee may be preoccupied with weapons and/or the military, or hurting a specific person. He or she may believe a romantic attachment exists to a co-worker.

Decline in Performance: Recent excessive and unexplained absences from the job, concentration problems, increased signs of poor health or hygiene and the inability to accept responsibility for errors.

Stress: Increased stress in the employee's personal life including financial problems, problems in his or her marriage or other relationships, inappropriate display of emotions on the job such as uncontrolled anger or excessive crying.

Substance Abuse: Some drugs increase paranoia and others can cause aggressive behavior. Alcohol is present in many violent situations. While there is no scientific evidence to substantiate that substance abuse causes violence, it is present in many of the reported cases of violent behavior.

These and other studies may indicate that we are making progress in our ability to predict violent behavior in certain specific situations. However, this still remains more of an art than a science. While there appears to be some common characteristics in those who commit violence in the workplace, no definite profile has been accepted by the professionals in this area.

Definition of Terms

Sexual harassment: The establishment and maintenance of an oppressive work environment.

Workplace: Any location where a person carries out work related functions.

Workplace violence: Any form of nonconsensual verbal or physical actions carried out by one person or persons upon another within the working environment.

Self Examination Chapter 21, Section 3

Workplace Violence:
Its Nature and Extent

1) Define workplace violence.

2) Should the definition of workplace violence include sexual harassment? Why?

3) Can we, with any accuracy, predict dangerousness?

4) Describe the profile of a person who engages in violence in the workplace.

5) Briefly describe the components of your proposed, ideal workplace violence victim assistance system.


Anfuso, D. (1994, October). Workplace violence. Personnel Journal, 66-77.

Barford, G. & Tseng, K. (1994, March). Psychological tests and workplace violence-A review. Flordia Bar Journal, 68, 76-80.

Baron, S.A. (1993). Violence in the workplace. Ventura, CA: Pathfinder Publishing.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (1994). National census of fatal occupational injuries, 1993, (USDL-94-384). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Labor.

Mantell, M. (1994). Ticking bombs. Burr Ridge, IL: Irwin Professional Publishing.

Northwestern National Life, (1993). Fear and violence in the workplace. Chicago: Author.

Northwestern National Life. (1993). Fear and violence in the workplace, Executive Summary. Chicago: Author.

Russel, J. & Conroy, C. (1991). Representativeness of deaths identified through injury-at-work item on the death certificate: Implications for surveillance. American Journal of Public Health, 81, 1613-1636.

Weiner, N. A. & Wolfgang, M . E. (Eds.). Violent crime, violent criminals. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1993). Fatal injuries to workers in the United States, 1980-1989: A decade of surveillance. Washington, DC: Author.

Additional Suggested Reading

Campell, E. (1995). Assessing dangerousness. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publishing.

Goldstein. (1986). Aggression and crimes of violence, (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Reiss & Roth. (1993). Understanding and preventing violence. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

To Chapter 21-Section 4

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