What is it and who is at risk?
When we hear the term ‘Occupational Health and Safety,” we don’t often think about workplace violence. A simple Google search will result in endless images of hard hats and other personal protective equipment, suggesting that we are more at risk of being hurt by actually doing our job; that the hazards we’re exposed to are most likely mechanical, electrical, fire, biological etc. However other people can pose a threat to our wellbeing, take for instance an unruly patient in a hospital and the nurse who has to calm them down or sedate them, not only would that nurse get a hit here and there but most likely she’d get an earful of insults. As a result, this is where we can see how workplace violence can get ‘swept under the rug,’ so to say.
In many professions violence in the form of physical and verbal abuse comes with the territory, think for instance law enforcement. As a result of this people can become used to this type of behaviour and that’s where harassment, gossiping and verbal abuse come in, and these have the potential to escalate into physical violence and threatening behaviours. Workplace violence can occur in almost any type of work environment causing both physical and psychological harm to employees.
According to The Bureau of Labour Statistics, in the United States there have been 14,770 reported workplace homicides between 1992 and 2012. Another survey conducted by Consumer Product Safety Commission in collaboration with NIOSH found that in 2009 more than 137,000 victims were treated for non-fatal attacks which occurred in the workplace. Though more recent data is difficult to find, from these figures it is safe to assume that workplace violence is common and a serious issue within the organization. Violence towards employees can result in loss of lives, greater turnover, lower productivity due to depression or anxiety, loss in working days due to workers taking their sick leave etc. Workplace violence negatively affects both the employee and the employer however it can be controlled and prevented through both legal considerations and risk reduction strategies.
TYPES OF WORKPLACE VIOLENCE
Threatening behaviour within the workplace is a worldwide occurrence an can transpire in several ways including yelling, laughter and insults targeted to a person’s sex, race or religion, other examples include threatening phone calls or text messages, spreading hurtful rumours about others and also physical abuse such as pushing or hitting someone. Hence, threatening behaviour can interfere or disrupt activities in the workplace. Every individual would face some type of threatening behaviour throughout their work life. Threatening behaviour against employees can occur between workers themselves or by persons outside the workplace. According to an article in the Trinidad Express Newspaper earlier this year, “Housing Development Corporation (HDC) workers and contractors were threatened by residents of the community in which they demanded jobs to refurbish apartment buildings.” Due to the refusal of jobs from the contractors and workers, residents were angered and displayed threatening behaviours such as vandalizing buildings, torching the scaffolds and even painting a “kill list” on a building.
Verbal abuse can be described as the use of negative statements or words that can cause harm to the person being spoken to or about. This problem is prevalent in most workplaces but is so habitual that workers do not even realize that they are being verbally abused. The scars from verbal abuse can be just as disturbing and deep as wounds from physical abuse; the only difference is they are not as visible. Verbal abuse can take a number of different forms including: obscenities, name calling, insults, intimidation, threats, shaming, spreading rumors, teasing, sarcasm, mockery and scolding among others. Studies have proven that most cases of verbal abuse in the workplace occur because of an abuse of power by those in authority. Verbal abuse in the workplace is not illegal but employers must ensure that it is stopped. This is because the victim may suffer from serious psychological injury, stress and depression; working under these conditions can significantly jeopardize one’s health and safety in the workplace. The Tina Robbins case that took place in Houston California is a good example of verbal abuse. This case brings to light some of the concepts mentioned above, it highlights issues such as gossiping, teasing and rumors; it even goes on to show how the supervisor’s behaviors eventually led to the employee quitting the job.
Interested in reading more on this case? Read it here http://www.lawyersandsettlements.com/articles/california_labor_law/employee-abuse-00497.html#.VEkCvo0n-Zg
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, colour, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability or genetic information.” There are various types of harassment that occur in the workplace; however one type of harassment that tends to occur frequently is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment by definition is referred to as unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. It is usually perceived that only women suffer from sexual harassment; yet sexual harassment can be experienced by both men and women. Moreover, it can be noted that sexual harassment compromises safety and equality in the workplace and it can also affect a company’s bottom line. Sexual harassment leads to a stressful work environment for those being affected. Researchers have proven that this type of violence increases illnesses and time taken off from work. In addition, it also reduces productivity in the workplace and can even lead to increased employee turnover. As a result, employers must therefore create policies that would make their employees feel safe at work and ensure that these policies are adhered to. An example of sexual harassment that took place in Trinidad was in the case of ‘Carl Tang (claimant) and Charlene Modeste (defendant)’.
Interested in reading more on this case? Read it here
Physical abuse can be defined as a physical force of violence between two or more individuals with the intention of inflicting physical pain and bodily injury. Physical abuse comes in various forms and fashions namely hitting, punching, kicking, pushing, burning, choking, biting and strangling to name a few. In recent times, physical abuse in the workplace has been on the rise and according to the Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety health care employees, social services employees, teachers, public works employees and retail employees are at higher risks for physical abuse in the workplace as they interact with those in the public sphere. In Trinidad and Tobago many teachers have been affected by physical abuse in the workplace. These teachers have had encounters with students, other members of staff and even parents of their students. When individuals are physically abused in the workplace, it does not only leave a bruise or scar on them but it can also leave individuals feeling depressed as one may have to switch jobs and find another means of income. All in all physical abuse is a prominent form of violence which can be found in any work environment and employers need to put measures in place to prevent physical abuse from occurring and to ensure that in the event of physical abuse occurs within the workplace the unfortunate victim can be compensated for.
RISK REDUCTION STRATEGIES
Risk reduction strategies involve outing measures in place to lower the likelihood of harm inflicted upon employees due to violence by co-workers or outsiders. In many companies worldwide employers use a checklist in order to reduce the risk of workplace violence in their organizations. Nurturing a positive, harmonious work environment, conducting background checks before hiring new employees and training employees how to handle themselves and respond when a violent act occurs on the job are just a few of the points accounted for on the checklist.
There are five major elements associated with Risk Reduction Strategies these are as follows:
- Natural Surveillance, a term coined by “Crime Prevention through Environment Design”. It is believed that natural surveillance limits the likelihood of a crime occurring due to a person’s visibility by others. A number of simple engineering controls can be used to ensure natural surveillance these include installing surveillance cameras, proper lighting throughout the establishment, installing mirrors or transparent partitions so workers are able to see their surroundings at all times etc.
- Violence against employees involving outsiders is one of the most eminent occurrences of work place violence. As such control of access to the work premises is crucial to prevent persons who do not belong to the company from gaining entry and inflicting harm upon employees. In order to curb this situation companies need to put certain measures in place. For instance outsiders should be given an identification pass in order to gain entry, should sign in at the front desk and be given guidelines as to where they do and do not have authorization to be while on the premises and so on.
- Activity Support deals with organizations arranging features of the environment to encourage positive activity and discourage negative activities. It is associated with using certain creative designs to promote workflow and natural traffic patterns.
- Establishment of territoriality allows employees to have control over the workplace by allowing them the opportunity to be free when in their assigned territory; however they are prohibited from other territories. As time passes employees grow accustom to the persons belonging to their area and therefore they can immediately tell if there is an intruder.
- Lastly administrative controls which requires management to create and enforce policies, rules and regulations reduce the risk of violence in the workplace.
It is then the responsibility of the employer to prevent acts of violence in the workplace from occurring and ensure that any act of violence is dealt with accordingly by following relevant policies and laws such as the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1960) of Trinidad and Tobago.
Workplace Violence is a serious and prevalent issue in all work environments. Violence can be expressed both physically and psychologically causing harm to both employer’s establishment and employees’ well-being . By conducting proper risk assessments employers will be able to determine a number of ways to reduce risks posed by violent employees and outsiders. In addition to risk reduction strategies the employer must be aware of relevant laws and regulations that govern how workplace violence should be dealt with. OSHA and NIOSH both have guidelines which are not mandatory but which are helpful to workplaces interested in reducing and preventing violence.
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