Campus Security and Emergency Services

Campus Security and Emergency Services

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Workplace Violence: What You Can Do About It

What is workplace violence?

Taber, Alberta; Littleton, Colorado; École Polytechnic; Concordia University: all of these educational institutions have suffered workplace violence in its rarest and most extreme form - homicide.

There are also other forms of workplace violence that are much more commonplace and are experienced here at Queen's and at every other College and University in Canada. These include assault, sexual assault, verbal abuse, harassment, suicide, attempt to injure, threat of injury, intimidation and coercion. Basically, workplace violence is any act that results in threatened or actual harm to people or property in the workplace. All such acts leave trauma and fear in their wake.

Since the workplace often includes clients, the students at educational institutions are deemed to be part of the workplace as they are in fact clients of the institution.

What is the scope of the problem?

The following statistics give some idea of the prevalence of violence in the workplace.

July 1998 report on workplace violence by the International Labour Organization compiled from 130,000 interviews:

  • Canada ranks 4th out of 32 countries for the number of women assaulted in the workplace
  • Canada ranks 5th for the number of men assaulted in the workplace
  • Canadian women report the 4th highest incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace

1994 CUPE survey on workplace violence compiled from 2,134 respondents:

  • 70% of workers experienced verbal aggression
  • 40% were struck
  • 30% were grabbed or scratched

20 people are murdered at work every week in the USA. Workplace homicides are the leading cause of death for women in the workplace and the second leading cause of death for men in the workplace. The incidence of workplace homicides in Canada is much less, but the reported incidence of other forms of violence is higher.

60% of homicides are committed by strangers to the workplace; 30% by clients and 10% by employees. However, strangers commit only 24% of other types of workplace violence, while clients commit 44% and employees commit 30%.

What are some of the reasons for the prevalence of workplace violence?

Some factors are societal or personal in nature such as the prevalence and glorification of violence in our society, drug or alcohol abuse, reaction to family stress, poverty, domestic violence or access to deadly weapons. It should be noted that access to firearms is much more strictly controlled in Canada.

Others are workplace related. They include:

  • job insecurity brought on by downsizing and the stress of extra work and guilt for those whose jobs remain
  • job stress or the stress of exams
  • lack of clear policy, rules of conduct and awareness training concerning violence in the workplace
  • less than thorough hiring, training and supervision practices for employees
  • ineffective or non-existent violence reporting procedures
  • reluctance by managers to discipline employees or students in a timely manner when warranted
  • failure to monitor dangerous employees/students after disciplinary action
  • inadequate physical security
  • an autocratic or abusive management style
  • an atmosphere of indignity that tolerates bigotry, sexual harassment or general disrespect and intolerance of others
  • serious unresolved workplace issues
  • past incidents of workplace violence

Finally, some types of jobs are more at risk of violence than others, for a number of reasons. They include jobs that:

  • have contact with the general public
  • exchange money, such as retail clerks who are at the highest risk of workplace violence of all professions. The next most risky profession is police officer.
  • delivers passengers, goods or services
  • has a mobile workplace such as a taxi, security vehicle, or parking enforcement vehicle
  • work with unstable or volatile persons in health care, social services or criminal justice settings
  • require employees to work alone or in small numbers
  • require employees to work late at night or in the early morning
  • require employees to work in high crime areas
  • involve guarding valuable property or possessions

Can workplace violence be anticipated?

In almost all cases, incidents of workplace violence are preceded by a number of warning signs. Some are very overt and clear, some are more subtle. They include:

  • Direct or veiled threats of harm. One of the perpetrators in Littleton, Colorado had a personal web site that clearly stated his intention to kill people at his school and destroy the school.
  • Intimidating, belligerent, harassing or other inappropriate and aggressive behaviour.
  • Numerous conflicts with supervisors and other employees or students.
  • Bringing and/or brandishing a weapon at work or school.
  • Making inappropriate references to or a fascination with weapons.
  • Statements indicating fascination with incidents of workplace violence, approval of the use of violence to resolve a situation or identification with perpetrators of workplace homicide. The Taber gunman was allegedly inspired by the two Littleton murderers.
  • Statements indicating desperation to the point of suicide.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Extreme changes in behaviour such as increased absenteeism, mood swings, deterioration of personal hygiene, deteriorating job performance.
  • Increased numbers of complaints from coworkers, subordinates or students.

Each of these behaviours is a clear sign that something is wrong. None should be ignored.

Can workplace violence be prevented?

The short answer is no; there is no foolproof way to completely prevent violence in the workplace, or anywhere else. However, there are a number of preventative measures that can be taken to significantly reduce the risk of violence in your workplace.

1. Conduct a threat assessment for your work, study or living area. This can be done with the help of Campus Security, or by using your own common sense and consulting the variety of personal security measures applicable to a variety of work or study related situations that are outlined in "Safety Tips." The assessment should take into account risk factors (as listed above), physical security measures in place, policies and procedures in the workplace, especially dealing with hiring and managing employees and workplace culture. It should identify security measures that can reduce risk.

2. Implement appropriate security measures. These could include:

  • physical security measures (CCTV, alarms, electronic access systems, improved lighting, emergency telephones, photo ID badges, public/private office areas, guards or natural barriers such as counters)
  • procedural or behavioural changes (pre-employment screenings, use of administrative and disciplinary sanctions when warranted, use of employee escorts, not propping doors open, ensuring someone is responsible every night to arm alarms, locking your room or office etc.)
  • employee/student training (awareness of policy, awareness of warning signs, awareness of risk factors and how to mitigate them and knowledge of how to react and what to do in a violent situation. It is also helpful to acquire stress management and conflict resolution skills to help you diffuse potentially violent situations.)

What do I do if faced with a violent or a potentially violent situation?

If you notice a colleague, student or co-worker exhibiting some or all of the above behaviours, report it to your unit head, your unit safety officer or Campus Security immediately. It is not your responsibility to determine if there is a real threat, or to provide counseling or assistance to the individual. It is, however, your responsibility to report it so that the qualified professionals at Queen's can assess and deal with the situation. If violence is imminent or actually occurring, report the details to Campus Security immediately at 36111.

Specifically, if someone is angry or hostile:

  • stay calm and listen attentively
  • maintain eye contact
  • be courteous and patient
  • keep the situation in your control

If someone is swearing, shouting and threatening:

  • discreetly signal a coworker or a supervisor that you need help
  • do not make any calls yourself
  • have someone call security

If someone is threatening you with a weapon:

  • stay calm, quietly signal for help
  • maintain eye contact
  • stall for time
  • keep talking but follow instructions
  • don't try to grab the weapon
  • watch for a safe chance to escape

If you are a supervisor or unit head and you are informed that someone is exhibiting some of the warning signs listed above:

  • Talk to the individual; try to find out what the problem is and how it can be resolved. Do not delay in addressing the issue; very often violence can be prevented if the underlying problem is dealt with expeditiously and not allowed to escalate.
  • Take disciplinary action if the behaviour warrants it; make it very clear to the person that violent, threatening or intimidating behaviour of any sort will not be tolerated. Ensure the individual understands the parameters of acceptable behaviour and the sanctions for breaching those parameters.
  • Refer the individual to the Employee Assistance Program (if an employee) or Student Wellness Services (if a student).
  • Consider moving the individual to another worksite or offering paid leave as a temporary solution while the problem is being sorted out.
  • If the individual has threatened violence to someone, or others are in fear of their safety, refer the matter immediately to Campus Security. Equally, if the individual does not agree to address the behaviour and any underlying problems, refer the matter to Campus Security.
  • If there is immediate threat of violence, or violence is occurring, notify Campus Security immediately. If it is not safe for you to do so, try to signal to someone else to get help.

The most effective way of protecting yourself from workplace violence is to recognize the warning signs and report every incident, no matter how minor, so that immediate action can be taken to address the situation. Dismissing them as bravado may cost lives. Campus Security will listen to your concerns and will take appropriate action.