Expert Commentary

Workplace violence in America: Frequency and effects

2013 research review on U.S. workplace violence. Data sources include the National Crime Victimization Survey and the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Workplace stress (iStock)
Workplace stress (iStock)

The issue of workplace violence became a subject of media attention after the series of Post Office murders that occurred throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While such shootings are relatively rare, the impact of non-fatal workplace violence is significant, with the FBI estimating in 2011 that such crimes cost the American workforce approximately $36 billion per year.

The occurrence of workplace violence may actually be substantially under-reported: A 2001 study estimated that 2.3 million men and 1.1 million women have been victimized by a coworker at some point. Furthermore, even if the frequency of such violence is low, the economic impact could be significant as a result of direct costs (i.e., hospital expenses) and indirect costs (e.g., missed days of work or reduced productivity.) A 2000 study calculated that the direct and indirect cost of 344 non-fatal workplace assaults in one state alone during a single year — Minnesota in 1996 — amounted to almost $5.9 million.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines workplace violence as “any threat or act of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at [a] worksite.” The FBI further separates workplace violence into four categories based on victim-perpetrator relationship. These depend on whether a perpetrator: has no prior relation to an establishment or its employees (Type I); is a patron of an establishment (Type II); is a current or former employee (Type III); or is having a personal relationship with an employee (Type IV).

A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, “Workplace Violence, 1993-2009,” identifies key trends in workplace violence over the past two decades. The report utilizes data from 1993 to 2009 on various forms of assault against individuals over the age of 16 from the National Crime Victimization Survey. It also compiles data on workplace homicides that occurred during this same time period from the Bureau of Labor and Statistic’s (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI).

Key findings of the study include:

  • In 2009, there were 572,000 reported occurrences of nonfatal workplace violence — including various forms of assault — and 521 individuals who were victims of homicide in the workplace.
  • Certain professions are more likely to face workplace violence, in particular law enforcement, bartenders and custodians. The highest proportion of workplace violence in 2009 was concentrated in the field of law enforcement (18.9%), which includes police officers and security guards, and in service-sector retail sales (13.2%) which includes convenience store clerks, gas station employees, bartenders and other sales clerks.
  • There has been a substantial decrease in workplace violence over the past decade, with a 35% decline in nonfatal incidents between 2002 and 2009. In addition, homicides in the workplace have declined substantially (51%) from 1993 to 2009. (It should be noted that rates of crime of many types have fallen over this period, according to FBI data.)
  • Instances of workplace violence were less likely to involve a weapon (18.3%) than non-workplace violence (26.6%). Eighty percent of homicides in the workplace were committed using firearms.
  • The majority of incidents of workplace violence are committed by individuals who are strangers to the victim. Men are less likely than women to know the perpetrator, with 52.9% of men considering their assailants strangers compared to only 41% of females.
  • Workplace violence was less likely to be reported, with 47% of incidents reported to police, than non-workplace violence, with 52% of incidents reported. The most common reason victims gave for not reporting an incident to the police was that they reported it to a superior or other official.
  • The most common reasons victims gave for reporting an incident to the police “were to stop or prevent an incident from happening (31%), prevent future incidents (21%), and stop attacker (20%).”
  • Men comprised the majority of workplace homicides, with 81.4% of victims being male and 18.4% female.
  • Whites also comprised the majority of workplace homicide victims (48.9%), followed by African Americans (21.7%), Hispanic (16.2%) and Asian Americans (11.2%).

A 2013 study published in Aggression and Violent Behavior, “Assessing Research on Workplace Violence, 2000-2012,” also conducted a comprehensive analysis of research done on workplace violence over the past decade. The authors state that, although there appears to be a strong link between certain occupations and workplace violence, there has not been enough empirical research to identify why this phenomenon occurs more in certain sectors.

The overall findings “indicated that although it is premature to arrive at any estimate of the prevalence of workplace violence, it can be concluded that: (1) it is rare; (2) the risk of workplace violence varies by demographic factors and occupational status (and in some cases their interaction, such as female nurses) as well as by the nature of the victim-aggressor relationship — with most workplace violence originating from persons external to the workplace, and (3) the factors related to workplace violence appear to be mainly situational, stress-related, and purposeful — such as the perpetrator being refused a service or request.”

Two 2013 reports address fatalities in the workplace. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities” found that “violence and other injuries by persons or animals” resulted in 780 deaths in the workplace as of 2011, surpassed only by transportation incidents (1,898 fatalities). Other major causes of workplace fatalities that year included fatal contact with objects and equipment (708 fatalities) and falls, trips and slips (666 fatalities). Construction and natural resources and mining suffered the most workplace fatalities overall, followed by professional business services, manufacturing, and leisure and hospitality.

The AFL-CIO’s annual “Death on the Job Report” found that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,693 workers were killed on the job — an average of 13 workers every day — and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases in 2011. In addition, “workers suffer… 7.6 million to 11.4 million job injuries and illnesses each year. The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous — estimated at $250 billion to $300 billion a year.” The risk of job  fatalities and injuries is not evenly distributed throughout the country. North Dakota workers experienced 12.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers while those in New Hampshire only experience 1.2 fatalities per 100,000 workers. “Latino workers continue to be at increased risk of job fatalities, with a fatality rate of 4 per 100,000 workers in 2011.”

Tags: crime, law, labor, policing

About The Author