Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Environmental, Health and Safety Services

Workplace Violence


Workplace violence has emerged as an important safety and health issue in today's workplace. Its most extreme form, homicide, is the second leading cause of fatal occupational injury and accounts for 11% of the fatal work injuries in the United States.

In response to concerns related to Workplace Violence, Virginia Tech has implemented a Campus and Workplace Violence Prevention Policy.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase a worker's risk for workplace assault, as identified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), are:

  • Contact with the public, especially where the interactions have a potential to be emotional or stressful
  • Exchange of money
  • Delivery of passengers, goods, or services
  • Having a mobile workplace such as a taxicab or police cruiser
  • Working with unstable or volatile persons in health care, social services, or criminal justice settings
  • Working alone or in small numbers
  • Working late at night or during early morning hours
  • Working in high-crime areas
  • Guarding valuable property or possessions
  • Working in community-based settings

In addition, supervisory (e.g., firing and disciplinary) actions can increase the risk of workplace violence.

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Indicators of potentially violent behavior

No one can predict human behavior and there is no "specific profile" of a potentially dangerous individual. However, indicators of increased risk of violent behavior are available. These indicators have been identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Profiling and Behavioral Assessment Unit in its analysis of past incidents of workplace violence. These are some of the indicators:

  • Direct or veiled threats of harm;
  • Intimidating, belligerent, harassing, bullying, or other inappropriate and aggressive behavior;
  • Numerous conflicts with supervisors and other employees;
  • Bringing a weapon to the workplace, brandishing a weapon in the workplace, making inappropriate references to guns, or fascination with weapons;
  • Statements showing fascination with incidents of workplace violence, statements indicating approval of the use of violence to resolve a problem, or statements indicating identification with perpetrators of workplace homicides;
  • Statements indicating desperation (over family, financial, and other personal problems) to the point of contemplating suicide;
  • Drug/ alcohol abuse; and
  • Extreme changes in behaviors.

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

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Preventative Measures

Some recommended engineering and administrative controls include:

  • Position reception area so that it is visible to fellow employees, or members of the public passing by.
  • Position office furniture so that the employee is closer to the exit than the client, and so that the employee cannot be cornered.
  • Minimize/restrict the number of entrances to a workplace; assure all access points are highly visible and well lighted.
  • Enforce key control rules.
  • Establish a code word that employees can use to alert co-workers to a potentially violent situation.
  • Post emergency procedures and phone numbers.
  • Using coded keys or card to control access to the building or certain areas within the building
  • Separate employees from the public (e.g., bullet-proof barriers, other physical barriers)
  • Assure adequate exterior lighting in and around the workplace and near entrances.
  • Evaluate staffing patterns and work locations-working alone, especially at odd hours, increases the risk.
  • Consider installing video surveillance equipment and closed circuit TV; if such devices are installed, post signs indicating that these devices are in-use.
  • Consider installing an alarm system and/or duress/panic buttons where appropriate.
  • Provide training on how to identify hazardous situations and how to respond appropriately in emergencies.
  • Establish escape routes.
  • Establish a chain-of-command for emergency situations.
  • Work with local police to identify hazards/conduct security assessments
  • Prepare a daily work plan so that you and others know where and when you are expected somewhere.
  • Identify a designated contact at the office and a back-up. Keep that person informed of your location and consistently adhere to the call-in schedule.
  • Check the credentials of clients and employees.
  • Use the "buddy system", especially when you feel your personal safety may be threatened. Do not enter any situation or location where you feel threatened or unsafe.
  • Define a confidential process by which all incidents of violence will be reported.
  • As a supervisor, watch for warning signs and be wary of circumstances that could precede a violent outburst (disciplinary action, conflict, unsatisfactory review, termination, personal crisis, impending deadline, etc.)
  • Screen all new hires thoroughly.

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Post-incident response and evaluation

The university strives to provide a campus and workplace free from violence and to protect and support victims and those threatened or exposed to acts or threats of workplace violence by offering security measures and identifying appropriate resources for providing support and assistance. Victims may also need special accommodations or adjustments to their work or class schedule, location or working conditions in order to enhance their safety. The university shall accommodate these requests and needs whenever possible and appropriate. Support services include:

  • trauma-crisis counseling;
  • critical incident stress debriefing; or
  • employee assistance programs to assist victims.

Supervisors who have employees that have experienced workplace violence should contact Personnel Services for guidance and support.

Three counseling options are available for students free of charge. On-campus services include the Virginia Tech Women's Center and the Cook Counseling Center. The Women's Center Sexual Assault Services and Education Coordinator offers crisis intervention, short-term counseling, victim advocacy, case management, support groups, and information and referral. The Cook Counseling Center offers both short-term and long-term individual and group counseling. The Women's Resource Center in Radford offers a 24-hour crisis line, individual and group counseling, and legal advocacy.

  • The Virginia Tech Women's Center 231-7806
  • Women's Resource Center 639-9592 (office) 639-1123 (hotline, 24 hours)
  • Cook Counseling Center 231-6557 (8 a.m.-5 p.m.) 231-6444 (5 p.m.- 8 a.m.)
  • Schiffert Health Center (Women's Clinic) 231-6444 (anytime)
  • Virginia Tech Police 911 (emergency, on-campus) 231-6411 (office)
  • Blacksburg Police 911 (emergency, off-campus) 961-1150 (office)
  • Student Life and Advocacy Office 231-3787
  • Office of Judicial Affairs 231-3790
  • Student Legal Services 231-4720
  • Equal Opportunity 231-7500
  • Planned Parenthood 951-5184
  • Personnel Services 231-9331

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Employer Actions to Prevent Violence

Employee safety and health should receive the same priority as client safety. Since workers may be reluctant to report assaults, supervisors should promote awareness of the dangers of workplace violence, and clearly articulate goals and plans for preventing it. Specifically you, as a supervisor, should:

  • Provide safety education for employees. The Virginia Tech Police Department can provide training on awareness, avoidance and prevention of mugging, robbery, rape, and other assaults.
  • Establish a communication system, such as a cellular phone, for employees to use while in the field.
  • Instruct employees not to enter any location where they feel unsafe. Utilize a "buddy system," escort service, or police assistance in potentially dangerous situations or at night.
  • Establish procedures to decrease the risk robbery (e.g., advise employees not to carry purses).
  • Require field staff to prepare a daily work plan and keep a contact person informed of their location throughout the day.
  • Assure proper maintenance of employer provided vehicles.
  • Provide field personnel with hand held alarms or noise devices.
  • Thoroughly pre-screen applicants for positions in your work unit.

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Employee Steps to Avoid Violence

  • Learn how to recognize, avoid, or diffuse potentially violent situations by attending personal safety training programs.
  • Follow procedures for alerting supervisors to any concerns about safety or security.
  • Collect detailed information regarding the client's or patient's home situation (e.g., exact location, parking facilities).
  • Report all violent incidents in writing to the supervisor, even if there were no injuries.

If confronted by an angry person, you may be able to diffuse the situation. Try the following:

  • Make eye contact, but don't stare.
  • Stand about four feet away, with your hands open and receptive at your sides
  • Avoid challenging body language such as hands on hips or "parental" finger
  • Be considerate of cultural differences or disabilities.
  • Stop what you are doing and give the person your full attention.
  • Speak in a calm voice and create a relaxed environment.
  • Speak respectfully - treat the person as you would like to be treated.
  • Be open and honest.
  • Let the person have his or her say without interruption
  • Ask for specific examples of the person's concern
  • Be careful to define the problem.
  • Ask open-ended questions. For example:
    o Tell me what is going on.
    o What do you think the real problem is?
    o What would you like to see happen?
    o Anything else?
    o Give me an example.
    o Tell me more.
  • Reflect back to the person what you are hearing, i.e. "you are saying that you should have passed the class."

What to Do When Violence Occurs

  • Try to stay calm. Raising your own voice may increase the anxiety of a potentially violent person.
  • Speak slowly, softly, and clearly to reduce the momentum of the situation.
  • Listen empathetically by really paying attention to what the person is saying. Let the person know that you will help them within your ability to do so or you will send for additional help.
  • Do not agree using distorted statements or attempt to argue.
  • Avoid defensive statements. This is not the time to place blame on the enraged person.
  • Ask the belligerent person to leave the area and come back when they feel calmer.
  • Ask questions to help regain control of the conversation.
  • Ask uninvolved parties to leave the area if this can be done safely.
  • Use the prearranged code word to alert your coworker(s) to call the Campus Police.
  • Never challenge, try to bargain, or make promises you cannot keep.
  • Describe the consequences of any violent behavior.
  • Avoid challenging body language such as placing your hands on your hips, moving toward the person, or staring directly at them. If seated, remain in your chair and do not turn your back on the individual.
  • Do not physically touch an outraged person, or try to force them to leave.
  • Move away from any object, such as scissors or heavy objects that could be used as a weapon.
  • Calmly ask the person to place any weapons in a neutral location while you continue to talk to them.
  • Never attempt to disarm or accept a weapon from the person in question. Weapon retrieval should only be done by a police officer.

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Employer Follow-up When Violence Occurs

  • Encourage employees to report and log all incidents and threats of workplace violence.
  • Provide for prompt medical evaluation and treatment after each incident, regardless of severity.
  • Promptly report violent incidents to the Virginia Tech Police Department.
  • Inform victims of workplace violence of their legal right to prosecute perpetrators.
  • Discuss the circumstances of incidents of assault with staff members. Provide opportunities for employees to share information about ways to avoid such problems in the future.
  • Investigate all violent incidents and threats, monitor trends in violent incidents by type or circumstance, and institute corrective actions.

For additional information on emergency planning, see the Departmental Emergency Planning Guidelines.

Related Information and Useful Links

Virginia Tech Police Department

Virginia Tech Personnel Services Employee Assistance Program

Virginia Tech's Stop Abuse website

Occupational Safety and Health Administration Workplace Violence Fact Page

NIOSH Bulletin on Risk Factors and Prevention Strategies