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How does OSHA protect workers against workplace violence?

Workplace violence and harassment can be detrimental to a company’s culture and bottom line. People do not just suddenly snap; there is usually an emotional build-up or a trigger that precipitates the outburst or violent incident.

Who’s at most risk? How can we prevent this within the workplace?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) takes workplace violence very seriously. The agency publishes a list of Workers’ Rights, including the right to be free of workplace violence, and the procedures for addressing violent incidents. It is no secret that violence prevention is a key component of a strong workplace health and safety policy. To craft a responsive violence prevention policy, let’s take a look at how OSHA defines workplace violence, what kinds of protections exist for workers, and the OSHA best practices for a violence prevention policy. 

How does OSHA define workplace violence?

OSHA uses a very broad definition of workplace violence, which encompasses any act of physical or mental harm in the workplace. According to the OSHA website, workplace violence includes “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite.” There are a wide range of behaviors that fall under the scope of workplace violence, from verbal abuse and threats to physical altercations and homicide. Workplace violence is the third leading cause of occupational injuries in the United States. It is vital for every organization to address this issue, even if the organization is at low risk for violence or has little to no history of violent incidents.   

What is the OSHA standard for workplace violence prevention? 

OSHA emphasizes that every worker is legally entitled to a safe workplace. The agency also lists the most at-risk occupations, affirms workers’ rights to workplace health and safety, and outlines the elements of a successful violence prevention policy. 

Which occupations are most at risk?

People working in certain occupations may face unique or heightened risks of workplace violence, due to either the nature or circumstances of the job. Several professions immediately come to mind as having a higher risk of injury or violence:

  • Medical professionals are high on the list, including doctors and nurses, especially those working in psychiatric or geriatric care
  • Law enforcement personnel are particularly susceptible to violence, given the high stakes of the job
  • Social workers or counselors working with populations with a history of violence, drug, or alcohol abuse, or unstable individuals

However, there are less obvious examples of workplaces subject to an elevated risk of violence. The following workers are also at risk: 

  • Those who exchange and handle money as part of their job, such as cashiers, bank tellers, and food service workers
  • Those who work in a high crime area or work late at night or overnight 
  • Those who work alone
  • Those who work in an establishment that serves alcohol
  • Drivers, including delivery drivers or ride-share drivers

What can trigger violent outbursts or episodes? 

There are just as many potential triggers for workplace violence as there are types of workplace violence. It’s important to be mindful of the variety of settings or circumstances that can lead to an escalation of violence. Although violence can spring from a variety of factors, there are a few common warning signs: 

  • Pain: Those who suffer from chronic pain or severe physical or mental distress may react impulsively or may not be fully in control of their behavior or reactions
  • Substance abuse: Alcohol and drugs, including prescription medication, can cloud judgment or make a person lose control of their behavior and reactions
  • Agitation: This can have a variety of causes, from mental stress, workplace dynamics, or interpersonal conflict
  • Unfavorable news: Frustration may result from tense or uncomfortable conversations, critical performance reviews, feedback on poor work performance, demotion, or firing. 

How does OSHA protect workers against workplace violence? 

OSHA has a list of Workers’ Rights, a series of broad guarantees for workplace health and safety. These rights can be more narrowly applied to the objective of guarding against workplace violence. 

According to OSHA, workers have the right to:

  • Working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm.
  • Receive information and training (in a language and vocabulary the worker understands) about workplace hazards, methods to prevent them, and the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace.
  • Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
  • File a complaint asking OSHA to inspect their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA’s rules. OSHA will keep all identities confidential.
  • Exercise their rights under the law without retaliation, including reporting an injury or raising health and safety concerns with their employer or OSHA. If a worker has been retaliated against for using their rights, they must file a complaint with OSHA as soon as possible, but no later than 30 days.

How to create a policy based on OSHA worker protections

Incorporating OSHA protections against workplace violence can greatly strengthen workplace health and safety policy. It ensures that workers know their rights and have access to resources if they experience incidents of violence. It also sends the message that workplace violence will be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly. The OSHA Workers’ Rights provide a useful template for crafting a workplace health and safety policy that has zero-tolerance for any kind of violence. Each organization and industry may wish to provide additional safeguards and expectations, depending on its level of risk. Here is what such a policy might broadly look like, and how it fulfills each of the OSHA Workers’ Rights. 

Elements of a workplace violence prevention policy:

  • Clear goals: Affirm a zero-tolerance policy for violence and explain specifically how the organization plans to achieve that goal.
  • Risk evaluation: Evaluate the baseline occupational risks, different contexts that may raise the risk of violence, and the interpersonal behaviors that can lead to violence. Review the records of workplace violence and create risk assessment tools.
  • Recordkeeping: Maintain a record of all reported incidents of workplace violence, including incidents of verbal abuse or harassment that did not turn into physical abuse. Ensure that workers can review the statistical data on workplace illness and injury.  
  • Training: Guarantee that every worker has access to information about prevention and risk, in a language that the worker understands. This is especially important in industries where language fluency is not a large factor for job success, such as manual labor jobs.
  • Management and employee buy-in: Affirm that the policy against workplace violence has the support of upper management and that workers will not be subject to retaliation for reporting incidents. Encourage employee feedback and open discussion of risks, so that employees feel that their concerns are acknowledged.  
  • Flexibility and adaptability: Be willing to modify and adjust these strategies based on new information, data, employee feedback, or regulations. 

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