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Are you safe at work?

Combating violence in the workplace

Contrary to popular opinion, most workplace violence incidents are not the results of disgruntled co-workers or spouses committing “crimes of passion.” Rather, the majority of workplace homicides and violent incidents result from robberies, according to “Violence in The Workplace,” a research brief released this year by the National Council on Compensation Insurance Inc. (NCCI).

“The occupations with the highest homicide incidence rates, primarily due to robberies, in 2009 were service station attendants, barbers, taxi drivers, security guards and lodging managers,” the brief states. Overall, the NCCI reports homicides by work associates, including co-workers and customers, increased to 21 percent in 2009, although rates are still below those of the 1990s.

Edward Armstrong, PsyD, a lead faculty member and area chair of the College of Criminal Justice and Security at University of Phoenix Southern California Campus, says workplace violence awareness offers a defense for employees and employers since nonfatal incidents still frequently occur.

“Workplace violence is an increasing reality in America,” says Armstrong, a former U.S. Marine and retired police officer. In fact, 2 million American workers are victimized at work each year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Workplace violence research suggests employers should use pre-employment screening as a preventive tool. However, Armstrong says it’s often difficult to gauge future behavior, especially if a past history of violence doesn’t exist. Such screening also risks employer discrimination and violating medical privacy laws. Armstrong believes employers would fare better by offering employee wellness and counseling programs.

“One of the best tools against workplace violence is awareness and the opportunity for employees who are in troubling situations to seek assistance.”

One of the best tools against workplace violence is awareness and the opportunity for employees who are in troubling situations to seek assistance.

Also, Armstrong warns, workplace violence occurs at all hours and manifests in different ways, from co-workers or customers committing minor assaults to more escalated acts of violence, such as homicides and suicides. Other types of violence include stalking, bullying, verbal and physical threats, and domestic disputes.

“Don’t succumb to the illusion you are safe just because you work when the sun is up,” Armstrong says, adding that workplace violence extends beyond taxi driving and other high-risk service occupations.

The NCCI reports that most workplace assaults are committed by health care patients. Health care workers may unintentionally trigger unpredictable violent responses from their patients seeking mental health treatment, explains Armstrong, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

“The presence of a mental or mood disorder is a prominent risk factor for workplace violence,” he notes.

Yet Armstrong encourages workers in all occupations to proactively protect themselves, preferably by watching co-workers and customers for warning signs of impending violence. Some of these warning signs include — but aren’t limited to — noticeable changes in a person’s appearance, behavior or baseline functions.

Workers can also note and report any co-workers or customers exhibiting basic signs of aggression, such as incoherent speech, posture changes, clenched fists, elevated voice, obtrusively concealed hands or an unwillingness to lose possession of a bag or other object, he adds.

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