Violence at work

From Violence at Work Factsheet (

Violence may be defined as “… a perceived or actual verbal or emotional threat or physical attack on an individual’s person or property by another individual, group or organisation.” (Bowie 1998). Violence may come from outside the organisation e.g. from an aggrieved client or someone with criminal intent; it may come from within the organisation either from a co-worker or from a superior.

Bowie, V: Preventing Violence at Work Occupational Health and Safety Update, CCH Newsletter 6/1998

Violence in the workplace includes not only serious injury and death but also abusive communications, (verbal, non-verbal or written), intimidation and bullying, initiation or “bastardisation” rituals, exclusion, physical abuse (pushing etc) and physical assault, sexual harassment and stalking.

Workplace violence is increasing. For example, in 1993-95, 3899 workers in Western Australia sought compensation for an injury or illness related to violence. The majority (70%) were women. In the US work related homicide is the leading cause of death at work for women, and for men it is the third major cause of death. A study by the London School of Economics indicates that 20% of workers suffer some form of threatening behavior (including sexual harassment) during their working lives and about 8% experience a physical attack.

Workplace violence tends to be under-reported, and in some organisations is considered to be part of the job, or part of the “induction” process (for example physical or verbal abuse of young workers). Verbal and psychological aggression against supervisors, subordinates and co-workers are common events, but may receive less attention, either because such behavior is regarded as “normal’ or because it is treated as less significant in comparison to events such as workplace homicides.

When thinking about workplace violence there are a number of factors to be considered, according to Vaughn Bowie of the Australian Centre For Security Research, University of Western Sydney. These include:

  • Differential impacts on persons experiencing or witnessing violent events (a witness may be more disturbed by an attack than the person abused or injured).
  •  Violence may be external or internal to the organisation and could be aimed at the organisation or individuals.
  • Those responsible for the violence may be individuals, groups of individuals or the organisation itself which may have an aggressive culture.

“Group assaults could include harassment by a group of employees or managers on one or more other employees. Organisational assault could include placing employees in dangerous work situations or exposing them to the risk of emotional trauma as a result or retrenchment, downsizing or redeployment.” (Bowie 1998)

“An increasingly important factor in the occurrence of violence is the environment generated by organisations undergoing rapid change. The employees who respond to this pressure by leaving, becoming … ill or asserting their rights may be seen as weak or as troublemakers. Less supportive organisations can ignore their responsibilities to create a supportive climate for change and instead create a climate of suspicion, fear and anger that can lead to an increasingly violent workplace.” (Bowie, 1998)

Remember! Violence at the workplace is an occupational health and safety matter, and therefore should be identified, assessed and controlled, just like any other workplace-related hazard. If you are concerned about violence at work, talk to your employer, safety committee and union.

For more infomation contact the AMIEU office on (02) 4929 5496.

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