Emerging Concerns and Legal Obligations in Workplace Violence

Welcome to this article on legal obligations and emerging concerns about workplace violence. These are two important topics so let's get started.

A look at legal obligations

In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 requires that employers adhere to the General Duty Clause. This clause states that an employee must provide a place of employment that is free from hazards. These hazard could cause or likely to cause serious harm to employees or death.

This means there is a legal obligation to provide a workplace that could is hazard free. This includes activities and condition the industry or an employer recognize as hazardous. It could cause or is likely to cause physical harm or death, taking action when there is a way to reduce the hazard.

An employer must put into place a workplace violence prevention program. It should include training and controls. This would be in the event that an employer:

  • Has experienced acts of violence in the workplace

  • Becomes aware of threats

  • Becomes aware of intimidation or other factor showing possible workplace violence

An employer could be help liable for negligence. This could happen if an employer fails to avoid possible violence. Liability can be due to lack of training or supervision. It can also include negligence in hiring and retention.

You could be liable if you are an employer or business owner and you fail to address increased risks in violence. This can include in a high crime area with robberies and assaults at night. Rules can vary depending on the state concerning worker compensation laws due to workplace injuries. 

Laws protecting certain employees

There are federal laws protecting federal employees when it comes to workplace violence. If someone threatens or kills a federal employee on the job, laws are in place to cover this situation. This applies to employees including those who perform law enforcement and investigative work. It also applies – due to the large number of threats and incident with the agency – at the Office of Workers' Compensation.

In 1996 after a bombing in Oklahoma City, we see an extension of punishment to anyone who kills or tries to kill any employee of the United States or any branch of the government of the United States. 

Federal officers are included. Also included are acts involving a conspiracy to kill, assault, kidnap, intimidate, murder, or retaliate against an employee or officer. Here are some related issues.

  • The law enacts a penalty for assault, resisting, or impeding officers or employees including intimidation while the person is at work

  • The law penalizes a family member of a federal officer if the family member is threatened or injured

  • The law penalizes individuals for bomb or telephone threats

  • The law penalizes an individual for damage by fire or explosive device

Guidelines for those working at night

OSHA provide voluntary guidelines on how to prevent workplace violence and set up programs for night retail establishments. These guidelines could be used in legal cases and suits. OSHA developed the guidelines recognizing that homicides in the workplace are a leading cause of job related death.

Let's look at the guidelines to see what measures and organization could take based on these recommendations. Let's begin by noting these factors put late night retail workers at risk:

  • Cash is in the workplace making it a target for a robbery

  • Working alone

  • Working in an isolated environment

  • Selling alcohol

  • Working in a poorly lit store

  • Working after poor training in how to deal with workplace violence


Here are recommendations from what OSHA determined will help cut down on the chance of workplace violence for those who work at a nighttime retail establishment.

1.    Set a clear policy for workplace violence

2.    Make sure every worker is aware of the policy

3.    Establish zero tolerance for any kind of combative activity include assault, injury and verbal and nonverbal threats.

4.    Do not punish those who report on suspicious behavior or incidents

5.    Encourage prompt reporting of incidents

6.    Ask workers about how to minimize workplace violence

Organizations should keep records of incidents of workplace violence. This will help in developing a plan for how to minimize workplace violence. Here are factors to consider in developing the plan.

1.    Work on the plan with law enforcement representation

2.    Make those with training responsible for implementing the plan

3.    Make management commitment clear

Critical to the success of the plan are these factors.

1.    Management must support and plan and workers must be involved in it

2.    Analysis of the worksite must be in place

3.    Prevent and control hazards

4.    Complete safety and health training

Specific guidelines

Here are specific guidelines on what you can do to prevent robberies and other forms of workplace violence for a late night retail establishment.

1.    Keep shelving low so workers can see incoming customers

2.    Keep signs at a place where workers can see incoming customers

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Workplace Violence course?

3.    Make the cash register visible from outside the store

4.    Use curved mirrors so all parts of the store are visible to workers

5.    Use adequate lighting outside and inside the store

6.    Use video surveillance and closed circuit TV

7.    Use detectors so workers know when someone enters a store

Even more guidelines include these about alarms.

1.    Install and maintain alarm systems

2.    Install a panic button

3.    Keep a cell phone available

4.    Use a private channel radio

5.    Use a reliable response system when using an alarm

6.    Use a buzzer system

Additional protection comes from:

1.    Installing fences to direct flow of traffic to and out of the store

2.    Using bullet resistance enclosures

3.    Using pass through windows

4.    Using a drop safe

5.    Keeping only small amounts of cash on hand

6.    Posting signs about how cashiers have limited access to cash

Consider limiting transactions with bills over 20 dollars. In stores that have a history of robbery or assault and in high crime locations take the precautions.

1.    Increase the number of staff

2.    Use a buddy system

3.    Tell workers not to go to outside garbage areas at night

4.    Tell workers not to go to outside storage areas at night

5.    Work closely with police

6.    Report all incidents of violence

7.    Notify supervisors of all threats and assaults

Keep a log book with report of all incidents. This can help you determine strategies to cut down on violence. In the case of an incident here are some good practices.

1.    Workers will know when to request police assistant

2.    Workers will know when to filing charges

3.    Management will help during emergencies

4.    Management will respond promptly to all complaints

5.    Workers can rely on a trained response team to respond to an emergency

6.    Trained security officers will deal with aggressive behavior

7.    Workers will follow written security procedures

Guidelines on how an employer responds to an incident of violence

How an employer responds is critical to the success of a program to reduce violence in the workplace. Here are some specific guidelines on what procedures should cover and how to:

1.    Provide prompt first aid for injured workers

2.    Report incident to police

3.    Secure premises so police can properly investigate

4.    Prepare incident reports

5.    Inform management about incidents

An employee who was in an incident could suffer psychological trauma. Employers should make counsellors available for these employees. Here are factors to consider.

1.    Counsellors must be well trained in helping those who are assaulted or threatened

2.    Counsellors must be well trained in debriefing after workplace violence

What should go into training

Guidelines on what should go into training and education include that all workers should be trained. Here is a list of topics that should be included.

1.    Potential risks of assault

2.    How to prevent workplace violence

3.    Cash handling rules

4.    Use of security measures

5.    Early recognition of disturbing behavior

6.    How to resolve conflict

7.    Aggression management techniques

8.    How to defuse tense situations that could escalate to violence

9.    Location of safety devices

10. How to work with alarm systems

11. Maintenance of alarm systems

12. Record keeping requirements

13. How to report incidents

Emerging concerns

Let's look now at what in the future we should look at concerning workplace violence. In the recent past we have seen covered of mass shootings at work places and schools. Organizations have put into place programs to address such issues. Estimates are that about have of the business and organizations in the United States have such a program today.

What about the Internet

Starting in the 1990s use of the Internet grew. Today in the United States its use is everywhere including schools and even elementary schools, plus at workplaces. Use of the Internet and computers at workplaces has been both positive and negative. Some workers have abused this use. Some workers try to run their own private business from the computer of their employer. Other workers use a company computer to view non work related materials and even pornography. This costs companies millions of dollars in lost productivity.

Some workers even steal from an employer using a computer and Internet. If a worker is angry, they can use email to express that anger and even threaten a co-worker or manager or stalk them. The worker can also:

  • Hack into the web site of an employer

  • Deface the web site of an employer

  • Disrupt the flow of business

A rise in domestic violence today but an overall levelling of homicide levels

We have seen in recent years a rise in reports of domestic violence. This could continue in the future. Employers can see a negative impact spill over into the workplace. Stalking is one example. Even assault at a workplace can come from a domestic partner. Productivity can be hurt if a domestic partner calls a worker while they are on duty.

Data shows no great decrease in the number of homicides in the United States and a leveling off. It is possible that programs that are in place help with the leveling off and lack of increase. We hope to see this as a trend in the future and even improvement.

Some call it an epidemic.

Workplace violence according to some is an epidemic. It does feel that way when we see reports in the media of mass shootings. Let's look at a quick summary of some ways to deal with the epidemic.

  • Use a safety committee

  • Use reporting procedures

  • Hire people carefully 

The committee should meet regularly and be proactive keeping continuous improvement in mind. All workers should be encouraged to report incidents. If someone reports an incident they should not fear losing their job. Which leaves us with the idea of hiring the right people.

You cannot know for sure who will use violence in the future. However, if a person has a history of an inability to get along with others, a criminal record, or other warning signs, a hiring manager should be aware of this before hiring the person. A criminal record should not always prevent someone from hiring you, but it is a consideration. A challenge can come when during a background investigation you find little information. What else can you do?

  •  An interview can help

  • Ask the right questions during an interview

  • Listen carefully to answers

As you listen intently to a candidate do not ignore warning signs. Here are some questions you can ask.

1.    We have a diversity of people at our organization. How do you feel about this?

2.    What is an example of a time you faced a stressful situation and how did you cope?

3.    How do you go about prioritizing tasks when you have many tasks to complete?

4.    What is an example of how you took the lead to solve a problem?

5.    When have you delegated a project?

6.    When have you had to make an unpopular decision?

7.    How do you deal with conflict and what is an example?

8.    How have you dealt with an irate customer?

Ask specifically how an applicant behaved in the past and you could get a good idea of how they will behave in the future.

A quick review

We have looked in this article at two important topics related to workplace violence. One is about legal requirements and another is about emerging concerns. We hope you found the information in this article of value.