Preventing Workplace Violence

The summer of 2012 produced one of the most alarming streaks of workplace-related violence in recent memory. Among the deadliest and most-publicized events were:

  • the movie-theater rampage in Aurora, Colorado, which 12 people were killed and 58 wounded
  • the Sikh Temple shootings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that left seven dead, including the shooter
  • the workplace shooting near the Empire State Building, with two dead and nine wounded
  • the early-morning grocery store shooting in New Jersey, which killed three people
  • the hostage situation in an office building in Pittsburgh that ended without violence
  • the shooting at a Minnesota sign company, that killed six victims, plus the shooter


These tragedies all occurred within two months. The stream of headlines describing violence at various places of employment was long and horrifying, and the lives of those affected will never be the same. Is such a streak an indication of a trend towards increasing violence? Or was this an awful series of coincidences?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,609 people died at work in 2011, and 10% of those deaths (461) were the result of homicide.

Although the numbers may appear small compared to the size of the workforce at large, they still represent more than one death by homicide at work each day. What’s more, each death has a tragic ripple effect that extends deeply into families, businesses and communities.

These situations are often perceived to occur suddenly and without warning, but there are often signs in the months, weeks, or days leading up to the incident­­­: changes in mood, increased absenteeism, or angry outbursts. To minimize risk of a violent incident, all employees — managers, supervisors and co-workers — should be trained and empowered to report these sorts of warning signs as they occur.

Types of Workplace Violence

The headlines focusing our attention on disgruntled co-workers may actually be masking aspects of workplace violence that are not only more significant, but also preventable. For example, 39% of women who are murdered at work are victims of estranged husbands or boyfriends. In many cases, there is a history of domestic violence. Recognizing the signs of domestic violence and providing resources for assisting victims is a vital part of providing a safe workplace.

One-third of all cases of workplace homicide involve robbery. These cases often target employees in banks, retail or transportation, where there is a known presence of cash and exposure to the public. These situations should follow OSHA guidelines for a safe workplace.

Focusing our attention on workplace homicide can also obscure the depth of the continuum of workplace violence. Almost two million U.S. workers experienced violence at work in 2011. Violence stretches from verbal threats to physical assault and homicide. The much greater extent of these varying forms of workplace violence suggests a tremendous cost to employers in categories such as lost productivity, absenteeism and employee turnover.

The Need for Training

The lower-level forms of workplace violence can often be prevented or mitigated through violence-prevention training. While no policy can eliminate the risk of violence at work altogether, a few basic steps can make employees more vigilant and better prepared to recognize and react.

  • Every workplace should have a specific and explicit policy regarding violence, including detailed plans and procedures for responding to incidents, communicating with employees, families and the media, working with law enforcement, and a capacity for critical incident stress debriefing if any type of violence was committed, threatened or observed. Each new hire should be made aware of the plan, and the plan should be practiced on a yearly basis, if not more.
  • Provide Employee Assistance Programs to assist employees in managing work- or life-related stressors to help lessen the chance of a situation turning violent.
  • Systems for mandatory referral should be made available to managers and supervisors for employees in which troublesome behaviors have been observed.
  • Transfer employees away to a safe place if a threat was made.
  • Workplace violence audits should be performed to assess threat levels for all job types and work locations.
  • All employees should be trained to recognize the warning signs of both workplace violence and situations of domestic violence, as well as have basic training in violence prevention and verbal intervention.

Beyond the incidents that create headlines, workplace violence is a persistent phenomenon with an impact that extends to families, friends, co-workers and the community. Preparation and training can reduce risk and have a positive impact on the reaction and recovery of all stakeholders, helping to restore stability and productivity to the workplace.

Dumb Ways to Die

Metro Trains Melbourne, an Australian train company, recently created an entertaining way to promote rail safety with an animated video entitled “Dumb Ways to Die.” The video and accompanying song are both darkly amusing and extremely catchy and has already gone viral with more than 28 million views on YouTube since its debut November 14. I would say that’s pretty effective for a safety campaign.

Meanwhile, the song has been stuck in my head all morning.


Cavalcade of Risk #171

Welcome to the newest edition of the Cavalcade of Risk. Below you will find pertinent blog posts by knowledgeable people in the risk management and insurance community. Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

  • Insurance Claims and Issues: Dennis Wall writes about computer models and how they have been used to predict losses in support of premium rate increase requests by homeowners and other property insurance companies. Now, as Wall writes, they are being used to “predict” known losses after hurricanes, starting with Hurricane Sandy damage claims.
  • InsureBlog: Henry Stern explains why it can be mighty risky getting injured in the Land of Thor!
  • Workers Comp Insider: Julie Ferguson looks at the implications for employers with the newly enacted state marijuana initiatives in her post, “Marijuana: coming to a state near you – and probably sooner than you think.”
  • Work Comp Roundup: Michael Stack warns about workers comp advice you may find on the internet. Seeing should not always mean believing in this case.
  • The FCPA Blog: Russell Stamets pens a post about India’s new anti-corruption movement. Media savvy anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal, who rocked the Indian political and business establishment over the past few weeks with dramatic accusations of corruption, has formally launched a political party.
  • The Healthcare Economist: As Jason Shafrin writes, the Affordable Care Act requires that plans that participate in the health insurance exchanges meet certain actuarial value guidelines. A newly-released tool, the Actuarial Value Calculator, will help insurers determine whether or not their plans meet the actuarial value regulatory requirment.

Don’t forget to check the next Cavalcade of Risk, hosted by the one and only team of Rebecca Shafer and Michael Stack of Work Comp Roundup.

Factory Fires Illustrate a Culture of Lax Safety Standards in South Asia

Some have called the clothing and textile factories in South Asia “death traps.” And many would find it hard to argue otherwise, taking into account the region’s spate of factory fires in recent months. In September, 289 people perished during a fire in a Pakistani textile factory complex. As is the case in many of these tragedies, workers were trapped behind locked doors and windows were barred. That same month, a fire at an India fireworks factory killed 34.

So what’s the deal with South Asia’s factories?

As Business Insider states:

Several factors combine to make death traps of factories across south Asia. In many instances, exits have been padlocked, basements used as store rooms for highly flammable raw materials and no fire escapes installed, while smoke alarms or sprinkler systems are unheard of.

Adding to that is the fact that fire services in South Asia are not properly or comprehensively trained and resources are lacking. In addition, because of lax zoning requirements, factories are often erected and operated within crowded residential areas. In India, industrial zones and overcrowded slums combine to create a horrific fire hazard. And let’s not forget corruption that is rampant among South Asian countries, an area where government inspectors are easily and often paid off.

There have been more than 600 factory fire deaths in Bangladesh over the last five years. The industry has been warned time and time again, but has taken no action to prevent future fires. As ABC News reports, the brands associated with the fatal fire include Faded Glory (Walmart), Sears clothing brands and a clothing company owned by Sean Combs, who is better known as rap mogul P. Diddy.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, an initiative dedicated to improving working conditions in the global garment industries, has called for immediate action from international brands.

“These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps,” said Ineke Zeldenrust from the Clean Clothes Campaign. “Their failure to take action amounts to criminal negligence.”

Though criminal negligence may be the worst charge against these brands, they also face severe reputational damage. But it begs the question — how many factory fires will it take to motivate regional governments to create a safer working environment in the region’s fabric and textile factories?

Note: This article has been edited to highlight that this is a regional problem not confined to India.