Saturday, March 10, 2012
What Do You Mean When You Say Workplace Violence?
Security professionals must proceed with caution when wielding powerful terms and important statistics.
Security professionals are at their best when offering well reasoned business advice in calm discourse, but something about workplace violence seems to activate an innate tendency to engage in hyperbole and fear-mongering. The truth is that, despite the media drumbeat to the contrary, workplace homicide has been declining steadily over the past 18 years and is only 50% what it was when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the category in 1992.
Coming to terms
Some terms and concepts are so powerful that sometimes even security professionals have trouble responding to them thoughtfully. While conducting research for my Master’s I asked private security professionals at several LinkedIn groups, the management staff of a contract guarding company, line officers at a guarding contract client site, and three security-related blogs were asked to answer a brief survey related to workplace violence. Among others two questions assessed the knowledge of the magnitude and nature of the problem.
When asked the number of workplace violence murders committed each year in the U.S. 57% of respondents under-estimated. Only one in ten (9.6%) private security professionals correctly answered the question. 32% over-estimated the number. 15% of respondents did not know the answer. When asked the percentage of workplace violence murders in the U.S. committed by co-workers, former co-workers, clients, family, or friends of the victim 10% of respondents underestimated. Four out of five (83%) private security professionals over-estimated the percentage of workplace violence murders in the U.S. committed by co-workers, former co-workers, clients, family, or friends of the victim. Only one in 12 (8.0%) private security professional correctly answered the question.
This sort of disconnect has been explained by those who study the psychology of risk. We tend to overestimate the risk of encountering exotic hazards (air crashes) and downplay the frequency of more mundane hazards (car crashes). This specific case may be the result of lack of access to or awareness of the available statistics. Or it may be the consequence of the very human tendency to get it wrong when we conflate our feelings about risk with actually thinking about the real numbers. The survey represented very small, self-selected sample. The opinions expressed were just that, opinions. But two fact-based questions were asked. The idea that self-selected private security professionals with strong opinions about the risk of workplace violence were unable to accurately describe the magnitude or nature of lethal workplace violence is striking.
These are the terms used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics use to describe workplace violence and its perpetrators:
Type I: The offender is engaged in criminal activity, frequently robbery
Type II: These offenders have or had some sort of business relationship with the business where the violence was perpetrated by clients, customers, or patients
Type III: Includes coworkers and former coworkers
Type IV: Family, friends, or acquaintances of the victim; frequently an intimate partner
I’ve been told by a wise peer "I don't think employees are really concerned about the workplace violence perpetrator's classification." I couldn't agree more, especially when the violence is in progress. I know it seems clinical to poke and prod at our understanding of these issues. The value of understanding the nature of these offenders, their needs in some cases, their motivations in others, and their methods, is to help us prepare to detect, deter, prevent, or defeat them.
Rethinking the statistics
What if we break down the data into less alarming yet more useful chunks? Breaking apart the categories would help us put the different elements of the problem in better perspective, allow our profession to develop a variety of effective preventatives, and encourage firms to tailor their responses to their risks. Let's walk through the numbers while I explain. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) keeps the records for workplace fatalities and injuries. The most recent year for which they have published final numbers is 2009. The details are found in their 2011 publication, Homicide: Occupational homicides by selected characteristics, 1997-2010. [It shows that over 13 years there were 8,654 homicides in the workplace or on the job. Of these, 6,512 (75%) were Type I offenses. Type II offenses numbered 616 (7%). There were 894 (%) Type III events. Type IV accounted for 632 (8%) deaths. Please note, as I lacked access to a precise breakdown of workplace homicides by type on an annual basis I applied these ratios to the 2009 workplace homicide statistics to approximate their relative impact. See Tanya Restrepo and Harry Shuford's Violence in the Workplace for revised statistics.]
First, how many people die at work or on the job. According the BLS in 2009 the total number of employee fatalities was 4,551. Far and away, year after year, the leading cause of death on the job has been transportation accidents. In 2009 there were 1,795 fatalities in this category. Other categories include “contact with objects and equipment,” “falls,” “exposure to harmful substances or environments,” “fires and explosions,” and “other events or exposures.”
Using the BLS numbers we see that “assaults and violent acts” was the second leading cause of death in the workplace in 2009 but, unbeknownst to many with strong opinions on this topic, this category includes both 542 homicides and 263 suicides.
[click on chart to enlarge for easier reading]
If we break homicides and suicides out of assaults and violent acts category in 2009 then homicide falls to fourth place and suicide becomes the sixth place hazard.