Kim Scott, an intensive care nurse at a Florida hospital, has taken a beating on the job. Mentally ill patients and their family members have hit her, kicked her, pushed her, pulled her hair, and grabbed objects from her. Her experience is not unique. The nurses’ union says three-quarters of its members have been assaulted while at work. Some have ended up in the emergency room.

These nurses are victims of a problem that afflicts more than 2 million Americans each year – workplace violence.

The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” It includes verbal abuse, threats, physical assaults and homicide. In 2010, one in every nine workplace fatalities was a homicide.

While every worker is potentially at risk for workplace violence, some have a higher risk than others. They include those who:

  • Exchange money with the public
  • Work where alcohol is served
  • Work alone or in isolated areas
  • Work overnight shifts
  • Work in locations with high crime rates
  • Provide personal care or services

Cashiers, bartenders and wait staff, health care workers, delivery drivers and law enforcement officers are at particular risk.

A related problem is domestic violence that spills over into the workplace. A federal government study showed that, between 1997 and 2009, 359 people were killed on the job by current or former spouses or partners. Almost 90 percent of them were women. Between 2003 and 2008, a third of the women who died on the job were killed by a current or former significant other.

Episodes of violence in the workplace can be disastrous for the employer. From a moral standpoint, they are a failure to provide a safe workplace. From a business standpoint, people who fear for their safety are less productive than secure workers. Violence destroys employee morale. It makes retaining employees and recruiting new ones much more difficult. It generates bad publicity for the business. Finally, it will drive up workers’ compensation costs.

To reduce the risk of workplace violence, employers should establish a “zero-tolerance” policy. OSHA recommends that it apply to “all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.” The agency also suggests implementing workplace violence prevention programs. Such programs include employee training, managerial controls, and workplace and workflow engineering to reduce violent occurrences.

Some human resources experts advise employers to also have a written domestic violence policy. Such a policy would guide employees who are domestic violence victims and their managers. It should include:

  • The employer’s obligations to the employee
  • The signs supervisors and co-workers should look for and who they should contact if they’re concerned
  • Instructions on what supervisors should and should not do

Most people depend on their jobs to make ends meet. Because of this, they will often tolerate a lot of abuse. Many will refuse to report incidents for fear of losing their jobs. No employer should place its workers in that position. Preventing workplace violence is good business and the right thing to do.

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