Workplace Violence

What is Workplace Violence?

Most people think of violence as a physical assault. However, workplace violence is a much broader problem. It is any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment.


Types of Workplace Violence

Threatening Behaviour

Such as shaking fists, destroying property or throwing objects.

Verbal or Written Threats

Any expression of an intent to inflict harm.


Any behaviour that demeans, embarrasses, humiliates, annoys, alarms or verbally abuses a person and that is known or would be expected to be unwelcome. This includes words, gestures, intimidation, bullying, or other inappropriate activities.

Verbal Abuse

Swearing, insults or condescending language.

Physical Attacks

Hitting, shoving, pushing or kicking.

Rumours, swearing, verbal abuse, pranks, arguments, property damage, vandalism, sabotage, pushing, theft, physical assaults, psychological trauma, anger-related incidents, rape, arson and murder are all examples of workplace violence.

Workplace violence is not limited to incidents that occur within a traditional workplace. Work-related violence can occur at off-site business-related functions (conferences, trade shows), at social events related to work, in clients’ homes or away from work but resulting from work (a threatening telephone call to your home from a client).


Prevalence of Workplace Violence

July 1998 report on workplace violence by the International Labour Organization compiled from 130,000 interviews:

  • Canada ranks 4th out of 32 countries for the number of women assaulted in the workplace
  • Canada ranks 5th for the number of men assaulted in the workplace
  • Canadian women report the 4th highest incidence of sexual harrassment in the workplace
    1994 CUPE survey on workplace violence compiled from 2134 respondents:
  • 70% of workers experienced verbal aggression
  • 40% were struck
  • 30% were grabbed or scratched


What Factors Increase the Risk of Violence?

Certain work factors, processes, and interactions can put people at increased risk from workplace violence.

Examples include:

  • working with the public
  • handling money, valuables or prescription drugs (e.g. cashiers, pharmacists)
  • carrying out inspection or enforcement duties (e.g. government employees)
  • providing service, care, advice or education (e.g. health care staff, teachers)
  • working with unstable or volatile persons (e.g. social services, or criminal justice system employees)
  • working in premises where alcohol is served (e.g. food and beverage staff)
  • working alone, in small numbers (e.g. store clerks, real estate agents), or in isolated or low traffic areas (e.g.
  • washrooms, storage areas, utility rooms)
  • working in community-based settings (e.g. nurses, social workers and other home visitors)
  • having a mobile workplace (e.g. taxicab)
  • working during periods of intense organizational change (e.g. strikes, downsizing)


Which Occupational Groups are Most at Risk from Workplace Violence?

  • health care employees
  • correctional officers
  • social services employees
  • teachers
  • municipal housing inspectors
  • public works employees
  • retail employees


What are Warning Signs of a Troubled Person or Employee?

Workplace violence can start as small incidents involving negative remarks and inappropriate behaviour. It may escalate to physical or psychological violence.

It is much easier to prevent violence by stopping small incidents than trying to deal with the aftermath of a major crisis.

It is extremely important to understand that the following behaviours do not mean a person will become violent, but they may indicate that the person is experiencing high levels of stress. Each situation is unique and professional judgement or outside assistance may be necessary to determine if intervention is necessary.

Always take particular note if:

  • There is a change in their behaviour patterns.
  • The frequency and intensity of the behaviours are disruptive to the work environment.
  • The person is exhibiting many of these behaviours, rather than just a few.

Warning signs include:

  • Crying, sulking or temper tantrums
  • Excessive absenteeism or lateness
  • Disregard for the health and safety of others
  • Disrespect for authority
  • Increased mistakes or errors, or unsatisfactory work quality
  • Refusal to acknowledge job performance problems
  • Faulty decision making
  • Testing the limits to see what they can get away with
  • Swearing or emotional language
  • Overreacting to criticism
  • Making inappropriate statements
  • Forgetfulness, confusion and/or distraction
  • Inability to focus
  • Blaming others for mistakes
  • Complaints of unfair treatment
  • Talking about the same problems repeatedly without resolving them
  • Insistence that he or she is always right
  • Misinterpretation of communications from supervisors or co-workers
  • Social isolation
  • Personal hygiene is poor or ignored
  • Sudden and/or unpredictable change in energy level
  • Complaints of unusual and/or non-specific illnesses


What Can I Do if I Am Concerned?

Take action.

If you are an employee, you can report your concerns to your supervisor, or human resources department. You can also get advice from your employee assistance program (EAP) if you have one. Find out if you have a violence prevention program in your workplace and what you should do — if not, encourage your employer to develop one.

If you are an employer, you should know that many organizations are developing workplace violence prevention policies and programs. In fact, programs are required in many jurisdictions. A program is the best way to prevent workplace violence because it takes a very structured, well thought out approach to identifying hazards and reducing the risks for your organization. If your organization has a program, great! You should be fully aware of the policy and procedures developed to help keep your workplace safe. If you do not have a program, you should consider developing one. Remember, employers have a legal obligation to provide employees with a safe workplace. This obligation includes providing a workplace free from workplace violence.

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