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Workplace violence is a growing problem in the U.S. Every year there are more than two million workplace violence incidents, costing Americans $36 billion annually. A large portion of workplace violence takes the form of psychological bullying and assaults, such as pushing or grabbing.

Roughly one-fifth of workplace violence incidents end with a serious bodily injury or death. The number of active shooter events has dramatically increased over the past decade and most of those incidents occur in the workplace. Workplace violence continues to be a leading cause of death in the American workplace.

OSHA breaks down workplace violence into four categories:

  • Violence by strangers: This criminal intent, such as robbery and burglary, is the leading cause of workplace violence in the U.S.
  • Violence by customers or clients: A customer or a client attacks an employee.
  • Violence by coworkers: Coworkers fighting with each other. This is what most people traditionally associate with workplace violence.
  • Violence by personal relations: Domestic disputes that follow an employee to the workplace or are started in the workplace. Domestic disputes are some of the most dangerous calls a police officer can respond to.

An unofficial fifth category is terrorism or a politically driven active shooter.

Three simple actions that someone can take during a workplace violence episode to save his/her life are run, hide, fight. Many programs to teach these steps have existed for years; yet, employees still do not receive training. With the increasing violence in the workplace over the past decade, employees should receive workplace violence and active shooter training in whatever program employees respond well to, whether it is run, hide, fight or avoid, deny, defend. Employees should also be trained to look out for other warning signs and security measures to prevent workplace violence. A little training, prevention and planning can make the difference to prevent a tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Prevention is the best approach to dealing with workplace violence and safety. Simple prevention techniques can stop a tragedy from occurring

Security Solutions

Security is a good place to start with workplace violence prevention. Security can deter criminals, protect offices, buildings, equipment, customers and employees. Simple physical security solutions can make criminals and active shooters choose another location. Note that good physical security will help employees with run, hide, fight.

Another good security solution is conducting background checks. Performing background checks on prospective employees is becoming a common practice. Background checks can reveal an employee’s criminal records, substance abuse problems and past violent issues. A background check is an effective way of avoiding violent people in the workplace.

Recently, I was conducting a safety inspection for a corporation, and I observed an employee making an offensive gesture to a driver. I asked why he did that. He said the Dodge Charger was an undercover police car and he was flipping him off, not me. Then I asked why he was flipping off the cop. He responded that he was recently arrested for selling meth to an undercover cop. Needless to say, at the end of my inspection, I notified management that they might want to start doing background checks on employees, especially since the person driving the Dodge Charger was not an undercover cop but a potential client.

Performing a threat and security assessment can improve an employee’s chances of surviving in a violent incident. I recommend looking for areas that are vulnerable to attack and asking what employees would do during an assault. Employers should determine and locate weak areas in the workplace and determine which areas can be improved.

Red Flags & Threats

Paying attention to red flags, threats and warnings is an important step in preventing workplace violence. Warnings can come in many forms: physical, verbal and action. Body language accounts for 50% to 70% of communication. Most people display several physical signs of aggression before engaging in an overt act of violence.

We naturally recognize many of these signs such as jaw or fist clenching, sweating, flushed or pale face, glaring or avoiding eye contact, or a change in voice. It is important to train employees to recognize signs of aggression so they can try to de-escalate the situation or run, hide, fight.

Other warning signs of impending aggression:

  • resistant to or upset about change in the workplace;
  • substance abuse;
  • violent outbursts;
  • emotionally charged over issues or criticism.

Many violent people will subconsciously warn people before they act: “I am going to punch you in the face if you don’t . . .” Many have heard things like this. Threats should be taken seriously, and procedures should be in place for employees and managers to follow in the event that a threat is made in the workplace. Three things to consider when evaluating threats:

  • Severity of the threat (e.g., kill, shoot, punch, blow up).
  • Likelihood of threat. Is this something that s/he can likely do? In what time frame?
  • Capability of the threat. Does s/he have a weapon?

Employees should be trained on how to handle and react to threats and red flags, and on how to calm people who are upset. A key element of calming people is showing respect. Respect and communication can go a long way in preventing violence. Disrespect almost always leads to something bad. Employees who feel threatened should notify law enforcement before it becomes a violent incident. Also, managers and supervisors must develop procedures on how to deal with violent people. Responses can vary from dismissal, suspension, counseling, write-up, trespass warning, law enforcement action or even a restraining order for an employee, client or customer.

Having a written antiviolence program can help set procedures and guidelines for everyone.

Run, Hide, Fight/Avoid, Deny, Defend

The key ingredient is to have a simple program that employees can remember and follow. It should cover the basic elements of what to do if a company’s security and prevention techniques fail. Once law enforcement is notified, the average response time for them to arrive at a violent incident is five minutes in urban areas with good police departments. That is not the amount of time it takes to solve the problem, only to show up on the scene. Security, red flags and run, hide, fight techniques are designed to help employees survive long enough for the first responder to stop the attack. That time frame could be 10 or 60 minutes or more after an attack has started.


During a workplace violence attack, it is best if people can run away from the dangerous area. The farther away from the attack, the better. Instead of reacting with fight or flight, many people freeze during high-stress incidents and can become easy targets for attackers. If an employee has an easy exit from the facility, that is his/ her best chance of survival. Good training could help employees make better decisions during a crisis.


If employees are unable to run, the next best chance of survival is to hide from their attacker. The children’s game hide-and seek is survival training for adults. Employees should hide away from the main walkways, open areas and areas with good lighting. Staying quiet, still and concealed are also crucial factors in hiding from attackers. Employees must also barricade while hiding. Good barricading techniques can include locking doors, placing chairs or heavy items in front of the door to prevent opening, or even bracing the door with objects against walls. Barricading makes it difficult for the attacker to proceed with his/her course of action and slows the attacker down in order to give employees more time for a police response.


Last but not least, if an employee must fight, s/he must fight hard and smart.

Buildings are full of items that can be used as weapons. Be creative, throw heavy objects, spray fire extinguishers; in a fight, everything is fair game. It is critical for employees to open their minds to the options around them. In law enforcement and military training, instructors teach “violence of action.” Being aggressive and dominating the area is sometimes what it takes to win the fight. Many active shooters have been stopped by people rushing and fighting the shooter.

If every person attacks the shooter, it is unlikely that s/he can kill everyone. Fighting does not have to be the last option, in some cases it should be the first option. Law enforcement instructors teach a 30-ft rule that says a person armed with a knife can attack and cover a distance of 30 ft before the victim can respond to the threat. An employee who is inside that 30-ft space has a slim chance of running or hiding, and the best chance s/he has of survival is to attack the attacker. On the other hand, an employee should not get hero syndrome and seek out the attacker, even if the employee has a concealed handgun license. Sadly, many off-duty police officers have been mistaken as the active shooter and were killed by responding officers. If an employee cannot run or hide when being attacked, then s/he must fight and fight hard.

Working With Law Enforcement

Employees must understand that the roles s/he plays can assist police officers. Before a violent incident occurs, it is important for police officers to get the facts. Knowing who, where and what was said or how the individuals involved acted can give the police the information they need to prevent an incident, or help police stop an attack. During a violent episode, police will be responding to the attacker, not helping employees. Employees must understand the importance of not rushing to the police officers for help. Employees should keep their hands empty and in the air so that police officers can quickly identify that they are not a threat. Police officers will likely be giving commands verbally or with their hands. Employees should pay attention to the police officers and follow their commands. Not following police commands could be perceived as threating to responding officers.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with workplace violence can be a scary, complex and uncomfortable issue to discuss; however, it is important for employees, supervisors and managers to be trained in workplace violence. Run, hide, fight or avoid, deny, defend are both good programs with essentially the same useful information. Either program should be taught to employees. Another innovative idea is to have local law enforcement visit a workplace to give security tips and workplace violence training. It gives police a chance to become familiar with that location if they ever have to respond to a call there.

Violence in the workplace is a recurring and growing problem. A little time dedicated to training, planning, and prevention can make all the difference in a workplace tragedy and lead to another day at work.

Author bio:

Michael J. Smith is a deputy sheriff for Fort Bend County, TX, and a safety manager for Southern Methodist University. Smith holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Sam Houston State University, a graduate certification in Internal Affairs and Intelligence from Texas A&M University and an M.S. in Security Studies from Sam Houston State University. He is a Certified Safety and Health Official and a member of the Southwest Chapter of the American Society of Safety Professionals.


This article was originally published in Professional Safety, journal of the American Society of Safety Professionals ( Copyright 2018. Reprinted with permission.


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