What is workplace violence?

Submitted by ADonahue on
Nurses outside capitol building hold signs calling for safe workplaces

Workplace violence is an occupational hazard that occurs frequently in health care workplaces. When we say, “workplace violence,” we mean any act of violence or threat of violence that occurs within the worksite or while an employee is doing their job.

Workplace violence includes:

  • Incidents of physical violence such as hitting, kicking, scratching, or spitting.
  • Threats of physical violence that cause an employee to fear for their physical safety.
  • Incidents where a firearm or other weapon is threatened or used, including where common objects are improvised into weapons.

The definition of workplace violence is not contingent upon a physical injury occurring. The impacts of workplace violence are varied — from serious physical injury and death to emotional and psychological impacts. Any act of workplace violence can impact nurses and health care workers’ health; therefore, it is an occupational hazard that must be addressed by the employer.

Importantly, the definition of workplace violence includes not just incidents where physical force is used, but also incidents where threats of violence are made. Threats of violence can have damaging psychological impacts on nurses and health care workers who experience them, causing fear and anxiety.

Workplace violence occurs without regard to intent. While workplace violence can come from any person present in the workplace, the vast majority of workplace violence that nurses and health care workers experience comes from patients and is most frequently related to their disease/illness or a treatment or medication they are receiving.1 Regardless of intent, the impact on nurses and health care workers is the same, and employers have a duty to identify and remedy occupational hazards.

The definition of workplace violence does not include acts of self-defense or defense of others.

Workplace violence occurs throughout hospitals and in other health care settings. It is not localized to any one specific unit or area.

For a comprehensive overview of what workplace violence is, read our brief Injury to None: Preventing Workplace Violence to Protect Health Care Workers and Their Patients.

1One study of nurses in Minnesota reported that 97 percent of the physical violence experienced by nurses was perpetrated by patients and for about 90 percent of those patients the violent behavior was related to the patient’s disease or illness. In 18 to 22 percent of patients, impairment was related to prescribed medication.

Gerberich S, Church T, et al. (2004) An epidemiological study of the magnitude and consequences of work related violence: the Minnesota Nurses’ Study. Occup & Environ Med, 61: 495-503.