What is workplace violence and harassment?
Most people think of violence as a physical assault. However,
workplace violence and harassment is a much broader problem. It
can be defined as any act in which a person is abused, threatened,
intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment.
While exact definitions vary in legislation, generally speaking
workplace violence or harassment includes:
- Threatening behaviour – such as shaking fists, destroying
property or throwing objects.
- Verbal or written threats – any expression of an intent to
- Verbal abuse – swearing, insults or condescending language.
- Physical attacks – hitting, shoving, pushing or kicking.
Some jurisdictions include harassment as a form of violence,
while others define harassment separately. Harassment can be
thought of as any behaviour that demeans, embarrasses, humiliates,
annoys, alarms or verbally abuses a person and that is known or
would be expected to be unwelcome. These behaviours include words,
gestures, intimidation, bullying, or other inappropriate
Generally speaking, any action or behaviour – from rumours,
swearing, verbal abuse, pranks, arguments, property damage,
vandalism, sabotage, pushing, theft, physical assaults,
psychological trauma, anger-related incidents, rape, arson to
murder – are all examples of workplace violence and/or harassment.
Also note that workplace violence or harassment is not limited to
incidents that occur within a traditional workplace. Work-related
incidents can occur at off-site business-related functions
(conferences, trade shows), at social events related to work, in
clients' homes, or away from work but resulting from work (a
threatening telephone call to your home from a client).
NOTE: In this document, we use the term violence to also include
bullying and harassment.
Please refer to the following OSH Answers documents for
When conducting a workplace assessment, what work-related
factors increase the risk of violence?
Certain work factors, processes, and interactions can put people
at increased risk from workplace violence. Examples include:
- Working with customers or the public.
- Handling money, valuables or prescription drugs (e.g.
cashiers, pharmacists, veterinarians).
- Carrying out inspection or enforcement duties (e.g. government
- Providing service, care, advice or education (e.g. health care
- Working with unstable or volatile persons (e.g. social
services, or criminal justice system employees).
- Working in premises where alcohol is served (e.g. food and
- Working alone, in small numbers (e.g. store clerks, real
estate agents), or in isolated or low traffic areas (e.g. an
isolated reception area, washrooms, storage areas, utility
- Working in community-based settings (e.g. nurses, social
workers and other home visitors).
- Having a mobile workplace (e.g. taxicab, salesperson, public
- Working during periods of intense organizational change (e.g.
- Working with third party workers, such as contractors or
Risk of violence may be greater at certain times of the day,
night or year. For example:
- late hours of the night or early hours of the morning
- tax return season
- overdue utility bill cut-off dates
- during the holidays
- pay days
- report cards or parent interviews
- performance appraisals
Risk of violence may increase depending on the geographic
location of the workplace. For example:
- near buildings or businesses that are at risk of violent crime
(e.g. bars, banks)
- in areas isolated from other buildings or structures
In other situations, workplaces might be exposed to family
(domestic) violence, such as a family member repeatedly phoning or
e-mailing an employee which interferes with their work, or by
showing up at the employee's workplace and disrupting co-workers
(e.g., asking many questions about the employee's daily habits).
Which occupational groups tend to be most at risk from workplace
Certain occupational groups tend to be more at risk from
workplace violence. These occupations include:
- health care employees or those who dispense pharmaceuticals
- veterinary practices
- police, security, or correctional officers
- social services employees, including crisis intervention and
- teachers or education providers
- municipal housing inspectors
- public works employees
- retail employees
- sellers of alcohol (sale, or consumption on the premises)
- taxi or transit drivers
How do I know if my workplace is at risk?
Conduct a workplace assessment to determine which hazards are
present and the risk they represent. When conducting this
1. Conduct an inspection of the workplace. Focus on the work being
done, the workplace design and layout, and your administrative and
- Consider internal factors such as culture, conditions,
activities, organizational structure, etc.
- Consider external factors such as location, clients,
customers, family violence, etc.
- Any measures in place to protect the psychological health and
safety of the workplace, such as job factors like how much
control over the work an individual has, excessive workload,
tight deadlines, etc.
2. Review any incidents of violence in your own workplace.
- Ask employees about their experiences, and whether they are
concerned for themselves or others.
- Review any incidents of violence by consulting existing
incident reports, first aid records, and health and safety
- Determine whether your workplace has any of the risk factors
associated with violence.
3. Evaluate the history of violence in similar places of employment.
- Obtain information from any organizations with which you are
associated; e.g., your industry association, workers'
compensation board, occupational health and safety regulators or
- Seek advice from local police security experts.
- Review relevant articles or publications.
Contact legislative authorities to determine what specific
legislation regarding workplace violence prevention applies to
Organize and review the information you have collected. Look for
trends and identify the occupations and locations that you believe
are most at risk. Record the results of your assessment. Use this
document to develop a prevention program with specific
recommendations for reducing the risk of violence within your
What can be done to prevent violence in the workplace?
The most important component of any prevention program is
management commitment. Management commitment is best communicated
in a written policy. The policy should:
- Be developed by management and employee representatives,
including the health and safety committee or representative, and
union, if present.
- Apply to management, employee's, clients, independent
contractors and anyone who has a relationship with your company.
- Define what you mean by workplace violence, harassment and
bullying in precise, concrete language.
- Provide clear examples of unacceptable behaviour and working
- State in clear terms your organization's view toward workplace
violence and harassment, and its commitment to prevention.
- Precisely state the consequences of making threats or
committing violent acts.
- Outline the process by which preventive measures will be
- Encourage reporting of all incidents, including reports from
- Outline the confidential process by which employees can report
incidents and to whom.
- Assure no reprisals will be made against reporting employees.
- Outline the procedures for resolving or investigating
incidents or complaints.
- Describe how information about potential risks will be
communicated to employees.
- Make a commitment to provide support services to victims of
- Offer a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to
allow employees to seek help.
- Make a commitment to fulfill the prevention training needs of
different levels of personnel within the organization.
- Make a commitment to monitor and regularly review the policy.
- State applicable regulatory requirements.
What are some advantages of having a written policy about
workplace violence, harassment and other unacceptable behaviour?
A written policy will inform employees about:
- What behaviour (e.g., violence, intimidation, bullying,
harassment, etc.) management considers inappropriate and
unacceptable in the workplace.
- What to do when incidents covered by the policy occur.
- Contacts for reporting any incidents.
- The procedure that will be followed when an incident is
It will also encourage employees to report such incidents and
will show that management is committed to dealing with incidents
involving violence, harassment and other unacceptable behaviour.
What are some examples of preventive measures?
Preventive measures generally fall into three categories,
workplace design, administrative practices and work practices.
Workplace design considers factors such as workplace
lay-out, use of signs, locks or physical barriers, lighting, and
electronic surveillance. Building security is one instance where
workplace design issues are very important. For example, you
- Positioning the office furniture, reception area or sales or
service counter so that it is visible to fellow employees or
members of the public passing by.
- Positioning office furniture so that the employee is closer to
a door or exit than the client and so that the employee cannot
- Installing surveillance cameras in the public spaces of the
workplace, such as entrances, parking lots, waiting rooms, etc.
- Installing physical barriers, e.g. pass-through windows or
- Minimizing the number of entrances to your workplace.
- Using coded cards or keys to control access to the building or
certain areas within the building.
- Using adequate exterior lighting around the workplace and near
- Strategically placing fences to control access to the
Administrative practices are decisions you make about how
you do business. For example, certain administrative practices can
reduce the risks involved in handling cash. You should consider:
- Keeping cash register funds to a minimum.
- Using electronic payment systems to reduce the amount of cash
- Varying the time of day that you empty or reduce funds in the
- Installing and using a locked drop safe.
- Arranging for regular cash collection by a licensed security
- Keeping other valuables safely stored and secure, such as
firearms, tools, opiates, medicines, etc.
Administrative practices may also include education and training
for employees. This education and training would include not only
information about the workplace's policy and process to respond to
incidents, but may also include:
- Civility and respect.
- How to respond to customers or members of the pubic who may be
angry or frustrated, such as how to de-escalate a conflict.
- How to respond to an incident of violence (e.g., emergency
response, when to contact security or police, etc.).
- Knowledge about discrimination, family violence, diversity and
- How to respond to those persons who may be impaired.
Work practices include all the things you do while you are
doing the job. They may include management functions such as
making sure the performance evaluation process is fair and
transparent, or “checking in” with employees to determine their
workload or stress level.
People, who work away from a traditional office setting, for
example those working from home, salepeople, real estate agents or
home care providers, can adopt many different work practices that
will reduce their risk. For example,
- 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 your designated contact informed of your location and
consistently adhere to the call-in schedule.
- Check the credentials of clients.
- 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.