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Workplace Violence Prevention

A Workplace Violence Prevention Program—An Investment with a Great Yield

James Madero | September 1, 2003

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This summer, a number of homicides occurred in American workplaces, many of which could be prevented. Company workplace violence prevention programs have proven to be effective, in terms of preventing violence and in terms of dollars and cents.

The Labor Day weekend has come and gone, children are returning to schools, and mornings grow cooler with each passing day. For most families the memories of summer will continue to bring joy and happiness into the autumn season. For others, the summer was a time of sorrow and loss. Once again America's workplaces experienced a number of homicides. Consider the following.

June 29, 2003—Albertsons Grocery Store, Irvine, California: A sword-wielding grocery bagger employee of Albertsons killed two people and injured three others before being fatally shot by the police.

July 1, 2003—Modine Manufacturing Company, Jefferson City, Missouri: An employee of the Modine Manufacturing Co. punched in for his night shift, walked to his position on the production line, pulled out a semiautomatic pistol, and began firing at his coworkers, killing three people and wounding five. He then drove to the local police station, exchanged fire with an officer, and then shot himself to death in front of the police station.

July 8, 2003—Lockheed Martin, Meridan, Mississippi: After attending an annual ethics class training at the plant, a Lockheed Martin employee shot and killed five coworkers and wounded nine others before killing himself.

August 27, 2003—Auto Parts Warehouse, Chicago, Illinois: A former employee who had been arrested dozens of times for weapons violations and beating his girlfriends, shot and killed two owners and four employees of the auto parts warehouse from which he had been fired 6 months earlier.

A Decade of Tragedy

It has been over 10 years since the term "going postal" entered our vocabulary following a number of homicides by disgruntled postal workers in places such as Dearborn, Michigan; Norman, Oklahoma; Des Moines, Iowa; Dana Point, California; and Escondido, California. These, as well as other homicides at the General Motors Acceptance Corporation in Jacksonville, Florida (10 people killed, 4 wounded), the law offices of Petit and Martin in San Francisco, California (8 people killed, 6 wounded), and the City of Los Angeles (4 people killed), changed the perception of the workplace as a haven safe from violence. As a result, employees, managers, and owners began to become aware of the problems of workplace violence.

In 1992 the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the United States Department of Labor began keeping track of the number of homicides occurring in United States workplaces each year. At that time, workplace homicide was the fastest growing type of homicide in the United States.

In 1993 the Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company conducted a survey involving nonhomicide forms of workplace violence. Survey results showed that annually 2 million workers were physically attacked, 6 million were threatened, and 16 million were harassed. The homicides, attacks, threats, harassments, and other forms of workplace violence were costing America's businesses and organizations over $4 billion a year.

A Successful Response

The rising tide of workplace violence led a number of America's businesses and organizations to develop counter-measures in an attempt to diminish and eliminate the problem of workplace violence. A number of companies developed and implemented comprehensive workplace violence prevention programs. These programs generally included a workplace violence prevention policy; a workplace violence prevention team; training for every employee; incident reporting, investigation, and response processes; methods for dealing with difficult employees; and procedures for terminating a potentially violent employee.

In the early 1990s the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported over 1,000 homicides per year. For the past several years, the Bureau has reported close to a 40 percent decrease in the number of workplace homicides. This data suggests that workplace violence prevention programs are effective. Further evidence of the effectiveness of such programs comes from the incidence of homicides in the United States Postal Service. From 1990 to 1994, there were a number of workplace homicides that took place at U.S. Postal Service facilities. In 1994 the Postal Service developed and began to implement a workplace violence prevention program. Since the initiation of this program, the incidence of homicides has decreased dramatically at Postal Service sites.

The Need Continues

Although a number of companies and organizations have implemented workplace violence prevention programs, homicides and other forms of violence continue to occur in the workplace. Part of the reason for this is many companies and organizations still do not have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program in place. When workplace homicides occur, it is more the rule than the exception that they occur at businesses and organizations that either do not have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program or they have a program that is deficient in one or more critical areas. In some instances, particularly in today's frugal business climate, many companies and organizations believe they cannot afford the expense of a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program.

Yet, the cost of a single serious workplace incident can be considerable. More companies and organizations are being sued by their workers or members of their workers' families for negligence, claiming that the killers or perpetrators of workplace violence displayed multiple warning signs that were either ignored or overlooked by the company or organization. Some family members have received verdicts in the millions of dollars. The average out-of-court settlement is $500,000, while the average jury verdict award is $3 million. In Allman v Union Butterfield, a jury rendered a $7.9 million verdict, finding Union Butterfield negligent for failing to protect two men who were killed when a violence-prone, recently fired worker went on a shooting rampage.

In addition to the risks and costs of litigation, there are numerous other costs associated with workplace violence. Some of these costs are obvious, others more subtle. These costs can result from a rampage-type attack that kills or severely injures one or more employees, but they can also be the result of conflict, threats, harassments, and intimidation. These less-sensational incidents are infrequently reported by the media, yet they comprise one of the greatest risks to employers because of their sheer numbers and volume. They can result in:

  • Decreased productivity, wasted time, decreased team morale, absenteeism, and lost opportunity costs
  • Turnover increase involving new hiring and training costs
  • Sabotage, theft, vandalism, and damage costs
  • Severance costs
  • Delayed shipments, lost sales, and negative publicity
  • Management and employee distraction
  • Workers compensation and medical claims

Expense versus Investment

Perhaps more businesses and organizations would develop and implement a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program if they viewed the cost of such a program as an investment rather than an expense. Consider the example of a company that has two managers murdered by a disgruntled worker who vowed to take management with him when he was fired. The first year cost of a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program is estimated to be $38,000, with an ongoing annual cost in subsequent years of $14,000. A jury verdict award of $5 million for wrongful death would cost the company almost 100 times the cost of a program.

With a program in place, the disgruntled worker's problems are considerably more likely to be brought to management's attention sooner rather than later, thus giving management and the worker the opportunity to resolve his/her issues or find some other solution that does not result in violence.

Consider next the example of a harassment incident that has been going on for 6 months. The costs associated with the harassment would include:

  • Lost wages due to two days per month absenteeism of coworkers
  • Loss of productivity of 10 employees, 10 minutes per day
  • Loss of major contract because of poorly prepared proposal
  • Poor performance of manager leads to severance
  • Cost to replace manager with new hire
Total Cost $88,600

Assuming an annual ongoing workplace violence prevention program cost of $14,000, the elimination of a single harassment incident costing $88,600 (like the one described above) produces a return on investment of $74,600, over 4 times the annual cost of the program.

An Intelligent Choice

There are several compelling reasons for a company or organization to have a workplace violence prevention program. The most obvious and important reason is that it can save lives. The devastation that is caused by a single homicide can have an impact on the victim's coworkers for months or even years, and on the victim's family for decades.

There are legal issues that are also of concern. The "General Duty Clause" put forth by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) necessitates that employers provide a safe work environment for their workers.

There are also issues related to negligent hiring, negligent retention, and negligent training. And then there are the costs described above involving both homicide and nonhomicide incidents. These reasons are all important.


By implementing a workplace violence prevention program, the potential for workplace violence can be identified in its earliest stages. Situations can then be managed in ways that effectively decrease and/or eliminate the potential for violence. This helps save lives, provides compliance with OSHA recommendations, and diminishes the chance of costly litigation. As noted above, the resources expended on a workplace violence prevention program are more of an investment than an expense. The return on this investment can be substantial, making it a very wise and intelligent choice.

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