In July of 2022, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released the findings of a joint federal study on workplace violence. The results revealed an average of 1.3 million non-fatal violent victimizations in the workplace each year between 2015 and 2019. That adds up to nearly 8 non-fatal incidents per 1,000 employees, aged sixteen and older. These results may leave employers questioning: What is their role in preventing violence and protecting employees?
On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Yasmine Mustafa and Kimberly Urbanek. Mustafa is co-founder and CEO at ROAR, a company that empowers communities through the creation of stylist and wearable alternatives to self-defense tools. Urbanek is a workplace violence prevention expert and educator. She works with teams to reduce violence and aggression through comprehensive training programs and conflict resolution skills.
First, we’ll talk about why workplace violence is a hazard in every industry. Then, we’ll discuss the basics of workplace violence prevention. Finally, we’ll share why leadership involvement is the key to any successful change.
Listen to this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast or read the show notes below.
Workplace violence: A hazard in every industry
Workplace violence is unique in that it’s a hazard every industry is subject to. Employees who serve customers or deal with the public are particularly at risk. Industries dominated by women are, too. Some are hit harder by violence than others. “Healthcare is actually five times more violent than any other industry based on recent statistics, and that continues to increase,” Urbanek shared. “But we are seeing increases across all sorts of industries.”
An important element to consider when it comes to workplace violence is authority, and the perception of it. Employees who are viewed to not have any authority – or actually don’t have any – are often subjected to more violent responses. “We see it in pretty much every vertical right now,” Mustafa added. “In every industry, what we find is the places that are most impacted tend to be customer-facing, guest-facing, patient-facing.” Frontline workers are often a target, especially if they work with pharmaceuticals, in cash-heavy roles, or during the night.
Industries occupied by primarily female employees see increased rates of workplace violence. Mustafa points out that they are often under-protected and under-served. Her background as a refugee led to a deeper understanding of what safety means. Unable to speak the language and attempting to assimilate into the culture, her father took the family savings and left them with virtually nothing when she was 18.
Working under the table and as an undocumented immigrant, Mustafa was subject to unsavory work conditions. Women in similar positions have few protections afforded to them to protect them from coercive behavior, threats, and unemployment.
Protecting employees: Start with the basics
To combat workplace violence, employers first need to be aware that it’s happening. “For example, most workplaces probably deal with more verbal abuse than physical abuse,” Urbanek explained. “Workplace violence is defined as any sort of verbal aggression or physical aggression. It’s not just active shooter situations or you know, somebody being physically aggressive. It does occur on a micro level regularly.”
Conducting a risk assessment
A risk assessment is an important tool that allows employers to better understand the hazards facing their employees. Urbanek recommends that one be completed on an annual basis at minimum; quarterly if possible. Employers can conduct this internally or hire an external consultant to assist. She recommends addressing the following areas:
- Physical security. A workplace should be secure against possible threats. This may look like locked doors, employee access badges, and security cameras. A process should also be in place to collect keys or change access codes after employee departures.
- Workplace policies. Many employees are caught off-guard in situations with aggressive customers. Determine what the appropriate company response is to difficult customers, and what steps should follow if there is a security risk.
De-escalation training empowers employees
Mustafa highlights that it’s important for business owners to think about the root cause of issues they may be facing. She finds that de-escalation training is essential for any frontline employee. “I would highly recommend it. Not only does it empower the employees, but it also empowers the communities.” These skills are carried beyond the workplace to families and friends. “Especially in the pressure cooker times that we live in today, I think it’s a basic skill that really everyone should learn.”
Stressors are plentiful in today’s society. According to Mustafa, mental illness, addiction, and homelessness are at record highs. However, equipping employees with the tools to cool down heated situations is invaluable. “Employees feel empowered to have the skills, to have the script of how to respond and what to say,” Urbanek said. “It really makes it less threatening, less risky, improves safety and actually improves outcomes as well as improving the customer perspective.”
Explore tech options
Mustafa points to technology as an essential line of defense for frontline workers. For example, a panic button may be of more immediate use to a healthcare worker on the go or an administrative employee working with the public. These options allow them to call for assistance quickly and quietly, without escalating a situation.
It’s vital for employers to use employee feedback as the decision maker. Do employees need a panic button to call for help? Notify someone of their location? Ask for the assistance of a more senior manager? Or all of the above? The answers to these questions should guide the kind of technology chosen for a workplace.
Prevention essentials: Leadership involvement
Without leadership involvement, workplace violence prevention can quickly land on shaky ground. Leaders don’t face the same exposure to the public as frontline workers. Further, reporting occurrences of aggression or violence is difficult for many employees. This is especially true if they face retaliation or discipline. As a result, they may be less likely to report. Mustafa points out that leadership has to be involved in the process. “If they’re not involved in the process, the culture of safety is going to be very quickly diminished,” she explained.
Ignoring the possibility of workplace violence can lead to other negative impacts . For instance, employers can face workplace injuries, work comp claims, lawsuits, poor morale, and increased turnover. Consequently, team members are more likely to call off work to avoid the environment. This leads to reduced productivity. These things degrade the image of a business, in the eyes of employees and the public.
Humans are wired to respond to threatening situation with fight or flight. In the moment, it is often difficult to walk away from a situation entirely. Urbanek highlights that some companies are adopting zero-tolerance policies that allow employees to reject aggression or abuse in any form.
This is where policies and preparation comes in handy; they prepare employees to handle challenging customers in a professional way that represents the company well. “We find that works, and that also empowers employees to step forward,” Mustafa added. “It also helps them feel safer knowing that the organization has their back.”
Workplace violence: Don’t let it distract from safety
“ Violence is a distractor,” Urbanek shared, “and when you talk about that level of anxiety, again going back to the brain science, we feel very vulnerable.” A loss of comfort, control, and certainty can send employees into a tailspin. Safety is made up of two components: physical and psychological. Policies and preparation come together to help support both.
Employers should solicit employee feedback and train workers to de-escalate situations. “For better outcomes, reach out to people that are the experts in those fields,” she finished. “Let them guide you in some simple ways that can make a huge improvement for your staff safety.”