Violence in the Workplace


July 1996
DHHS (NIOSH) Publication Number 96-100

Logo for Violence in the Workplace

Current Intelligence Bulletin 57

Nonfatal Assaults in the Workplace

Victimization Studies

Limited information is available in the criminal justice and public health literature regarding the nature and magnitude of nonfatal workplace violence. The criminology literature contains a few victimization studies that include designation of victimizations that occurred at work. Using the 1982 Victim Risk Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, Lynch [1987] used log linear modeling to examine workplace victimizations with regard to demographic variables as well as features of the workplace. Features of the workplace included exposure to and public access to the workplace, local travel, overnight trips, perceived dangerousness of the neighborhood and the workplace, and the frequency with which money was handled on the job. These analyses indicated that the risk of workplace victimization was related more to the task performed than to the demographic characteristics of the person performing the job. Factors related to an increased risk for workplace victimization included routine face-to-face contact with large numbers of people, the handling of money, and jobs that required routine travel or that did not have a single worksite. Using a 1983 crime survey in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, Collins and Cox [1987] found results similar to those of Lynch; the delivery of passengers or goods and dealing with the public were the factors associated with an increased risk for workplace assault. State-specific studies of workplace assaults using workers’ compensation data have also been conducted, as have industry- and occupation-specific studies; a summary of these appears in Castillo [1994].

Estimated Magnitude of the Problem

A number of recent estimates have been made of the current magnitude of nonfatal assaults in U.S. workplaces. The first comes from the BLS Annual Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (ASOII). The ASOII is an annual survey of approximately 250,000 private establishments. This survey excludes the self- employed, small farmers, and government workers. These data indicate that 22,400 workplace assaults occurred in 1992; these represented 1% of all cases involving days away from work [BLS 1994d]. Unlike homicides, nonfatal workplace assaults are distributed almost equally between men (44%) and women (56%). The majority of the nonfatal assaults reported in the ASOII occurred in the service (64%) and retail trade (21%) industries. Of those in services, 27% occurred in nursing homes, 13% in social services, and 11% in hospitals. In retail trade, 6% occurred in grocery stores, and another 5% occurred in eating and drinking places (Table 11). The source of injury in 45% of the cases was a health care patient (Figure 3), with another 31% described as other person and 6% as coworker or former coworker. The BLS coding system requires that the object or substance that directly inflicted the injury be coded as the source of the injury; thus 5% of the assaults are coded as structures and surfaces (these are likely events where workers were pushed into walls or to floors), and another 4% are categorized as tools (these include events in which knives or other weapons were used). Nearly half (47%) of the workplace assaults were described as incidents involving hitting, kicking, or beating; there were also cases of squeezing, pinching, scratching, biting, stabbing, and shooting, as well as rapes and threats of violence (Table 12). The median days away from work as the result of an assault was 5, but this figure varied by type of assault (Table 12).

Table 11. Violent acts resulting in days away from work in 1992, by industry

Violent acts resulting in days away from work in 1992, by industry
Industry Violent acts resulting in days away from work (% of total)
Services 64
Nursing Homes 27
Social Services 13
Hospitals 11
Other Services 13
Retail Trades 21
Grocery Stores 6
Eating and Drinking Places 5
Other Retail 10
Transportation/Communication/Public Utilities 4
Finance/Insurance/Real Estate 4
Other 4
Manufacturing 3

Source: BLS [1994d].

Figure 3. Violent acts resulting in days away from work, by source of injury–United States, 1992. (Source: BLS [1994a].)

Table 12. Violent acts resulting in days away from work—private industry, 1992

Violent acts resulting in days away from work—private industry, 1992
Type of Violent Act Number of Cases Median Days Away From Work
Hitting, Kicking, Beating 10,425 5
Squeezing, Pinching, Scratching, Twisting 2,457 4
Biting 901 3
Stabbing 598 28
Shooting 560 30
All other specified acts (e.g., rape, threats) 5,157 5

Source: BLS [1994c].

Another estimate of the magnitude of nonfatal workplace assaults comes from a survey by the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, which indicates that 2.2 million workplace assaults (defined as physical attacks) occurred between July 1992 and July 1993 [Northwestern National Life 1993]. This estimate and the findings from this survey must be used with caution, as the estimate for assaults was based on only 3% of the sample of 600, or 15 workers who reported having been attacked. In addition, the respondents to this survey did not accurately represent the actual distribution of the workforce [Castillo 1994].

A final estimate of assaults in the workplace comes from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)—an annual, national, household-based survey of more than 100,000 individuals aged 12 or older. NCVS data for 1987–92 indicate that each year, nearly 1 million persons were assaulted while at work or on duty (Table 13); this figure represents 15% of the 6.5 million acts of violence experienced by Americans [Bachman 1994]. Sixteen percent of workplace victimizations resulted in injuries.

Table 13. Crimes of violence against persons at work or on duty, 1987–92

Crimes of violence against persons at work or on duty, 1987–92
Average Annual Number
Type of Crime Victims Injuries*
Simple Assault 615,160 89,572
Aggravated Assault 264,174 48,180
Robbery 79,109 17,904
Rape 13,068 3,438*
Total 971,517 159,094

Source: Bachman [1994].
*Injuries are those in addition to the rape.

When the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) analyzed the relationship of the victim to the offender for these events by sex, female workers appeared to be most likely to be attacked by someone they knew, although only 5% of victimizations were attributed to an intimate (defined as a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend) (Table 14). Probably a customer, client, or patient with whom the victim had an ongoing professional relationship would have been coded to the acquaintance or well-known categories, so these findings by sex may be misleading and may reflect the distribution of the workforce in service sectors more than real sex differences in victimization.

Table 14. Workplace victimizations by victim-offender relationship and sex—United States, 1987–92

Workplace victimizations by victim-offender relationship and sex—United States, 1987–92
Victim-offender Relationship % of workplace Male Workers Victimizations Female Workers
Stranger 58 40
Acquaintance 30 35
Well-known Person 10 19
Relative 1 1
Intimate (Spouse, Ex-spouse) 1 5

Source: Bachman [1994].

BJS also analyzed workplace victimizations by type of work setting and found that 61% occurred in private companies, 30% occurred among government employees, and 8% of the victims were self-employed [Bachman 1994]. BJS points out in its report that government workers make up only 18% of the workforce and thus appear to be suffering a disproportionate share of the attacks; it should also be noted that risk factors such as dealing with the public and delivery of services are common among government employees. In addition, all local, State, and Federal police are included in this category.

A BJS analysis of the location where victimizations occurred includes both specific and generic categories (Table 15).

Table 15. Workplace victimizations by location—United States, 1987–92

Workplace victimizations by location—United States, 1987–92
Location where victimization occurred % of total victimizations
Office, Factory, Warehouse 14
Restaurant, Bar, Nightclub 13
Parking Lot/Garage 11
School Property 9
Other Commercial Establishment 23
Public Property (Streets, Parks, etc.) 22
Other 8

Source: Bachman [1994].

In 32% of the workplace assaults, the victim faced an armed assailant, whereas 62% of the perpetrators had no weapon; weapon use was not ascertained for 6% of the cases [Bachman 1994].

When individuals in the NCVS were asked whether this workplace victimization was reported to the police, 56% indicated that it was not. For 40% of respondents, the reason cited for not reporting to the police was that the event was believed to be a minor or private matter. Another 27% did not report to the police because the incident was reported to another official such as a company security guard [Bachman 1994].

The NCVS also solicits information about days away from work and lost wages due to the victimization. As a result of workplace victimizations, approximately half a million workers lost 1.75 million days of work annually (an average of 3.5 days per crime) and victims lost more than $55 million in wages, not including days covered by sick or annual leave. As a result of the 16% of victimizations in which injuries were incurred, 876,800 workdays were lost annually and $16 million were lost in wages, not including days covered by sick or annual leave [Bachman 1994].


Nonfatal assaults in the workplace clearly affect many workers and employers. Although groups at high risk for workplace homicide and nonfatal workplace assaults share similar characteristics such as interaction with the public and the handling of money, there are also clear differences. For example, groups such as health care workers are not at elevated risk of workplace homicide, but they are at greatly increased risk of nonfatal assaults. Castillo [1994] suggests that some of the distinctions between fatal and nonfatal workplace assaults can be attributed to differences between robbery-related violence and violence resulting from the anger or frustration of customers, clients, or coworkers, with robbery-related violence being more likely to result in a fatal outcome. The premeditated use of firearms to facilitate robberies is also likely to influence the lethality of assaults in the workplace.

Page last reviewed: June 6, 2014
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