Violence in the Workplace

July 1996
DHHS (NIOSH) Publication Number 96-100

Logo for Violence in the Workplace

Current Intelligence Bulletin 57


Recently, violence in the workplace has received considerable attention in the popular press and among safety and health professionals. Much of the reason for this attention is the reporting of data by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and others regarding the magnitude of this problem in U.S. workplaces. Unfortunately, sensational acts of coworker violence (which form only a small part of the problem) are often emphasized by the media to the exclusion of the almost daily killings of taxicab drivers, convenience store clerks and other retail workers, security guards, and police officers. These deaths often go virtually unnoticed, yet their numbers are staggering: 1,071 workplace homicides occurred in 1994. These homicides included 179 supervisors or proprietors in retail sales, 105 cashiers, 86 taxicab drivers, 49 managers in restaurants or hotels, 70 police officers or detectives, and 76 security guards [BLS 1995]. An additional 1 million workers were assaulted each year. These figures indicate that an average of 20 workers are murdered and 18,000 are assaulted each week while at work or on duty. Death or injury should not be an inevitable result of one’s chosen occupation, nor should these staggering figures be accepted as a cost of doing business in our society.

Purpose and Scope

The purpose of this document is to review what is known about fatal and nonfatal violence in the workplace to determine the focus needed for prevention and research efforts. This document also summarizes issues to be addressed when dealing with workplace violence in various settings such as offices, factories, warehouses, hospitals, convenience stores, and taxicabs.

Although no definitive strategy will ever be appropriate for all workplaces, we must begin to change the way work is done in certain settings to minimize or remove the risk of workplace violence. We must also change the way we think about workplace violence by shifting the emphasis from reactionary approaches to prevention, and by embracing workplace violence as an occupational safety and health issue. This document examines these issues and proposes new strategies for prevention.

Defining workplace violence has generated considerable discussion. Some would include in the definition any language or actions that make one person uncomfortable in the workplace; others would include threats and harassment; and all would include any bodily injury inflicted by one person on another. Thus the spectrum of workplace violence ranges from offensive language to homicide, and a reasonable working definition of workplace violence is as follows: violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty. Most studies to date have focused primarily on physical injuries, since they are clearly defined and easily measured. But this document examines data from multiple sources and acknowledges differences in definitions and coverage to learn as much as possible from these varied efforts.

The circumstances of workplace violence also vary and may include robbery-associated violence; violence by disgruntled clients, customers, patients, inmates, etc.; violence by coworkers, employees, or employers; and domestic violence that finds its way into the workplace. These circumstances all appear to be related to the level of violence in communities and in society in general. Thus the question arises: why study workplace violence separately from the larger universe of all violence? Several reasons exist for focusing specifically on workplace violence:

  • Violence is a substantial contributor to death and injury on the job. NIOSH data indicate that homicide has become the second leading cause of occupational injury death, exceeded only by motor-vehicle-related deaths [Jenkins 1996]. Estimates of nonfatal workplace assaults vary dramatically, but a reasonable estimate from the National Crime Victimization Survey is that approximately 1 million people are assaulted while at work or on duty each year; this figure represents 15% of the acts of violence experienced by U.S. residents aged 12 or older [Bachman 1994].
  • The circumstances of workplace violence differ significantly from those of all homi-cides. For example, 75% of all workplace homicides in 1993 were robbery-related; but in the general population, only 9% of homicides were robbery-related, and only 19% were committed in conjunction with any kind of felony (robbery, rape, arson, etc.) [FBI 1994]. Furthermore, 47% of all murder victims in 1993 were related to or acquainted with their assailants [FBI 1994], whereas the majority of workplace homicides (because they are robbery-related) are believed to occur among persons not known to one another. Only 17% of female victims of workplace homicides were killed by a spouse or former spouse [Windau and Toscano 1994], whereas 29% of the female homicide victims in the general population were killed by a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend [FBI 1994].
  • Workplace violence is not distributed randomly across all workplaces but is clustered in particular occupational settings. More than half (56%) of workplace homicides occurred in retail trade and service industries. Homicide is the leading cause of death in these industries as well as in finance, insurance, and real estate. Eighty-five percent of nonfatal assaults in the workplace occur in service and retail trade industries [BLS 1994d]. As the U.S. economy continues to shift toward the service sectors, fatal and nonfatal workplace violence will be an increasingly important occupational safety and health issue.
  • The risk of workplace violence is associated with specific workplace factors such as dealing with the public, the exchange of money, and the delivery of services or goods. Consequently, great potential exists for workplace-specific prevention efforts such as bullet-resistant barriers and enclosures in taxicabs, convenience stores, gas stations, emergency departments, and other areas where workers come in direct contact with the public; locked drop safes and other cash-handling procedures in retail establishments; and threat assessment policies in all types of workplaces.

Long-term efforts to reduce the level of violence in U.S. society must address a variety of social issues such as education, poverty, and environmental justice. However, short-term efforts must address the pervasive nature of violence in our society and the need to protect workers. We cannot wait to address workplace violence as a social issue alone but must take immediate action to address it as a serious occupational safety issue.

Page last reviewed: June 6, 2014
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