Protecting workers from domestic violence – the #2 cause of workplace fatalities among U.S. women

Jul 24, 2012

Protecting workers from domestic violence – the #2 cause of workplace fatalities among U.S. womenWhile U.S. workplace fatalities have fallen 27% since 1992, workplace homicides among women increased 13% in 2010 alone, say researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and West Virginia University. Homicide is now a leading cause of workplace fatalities among U.S. women.

“Criminal intent” was the most prevalent of four types of homicides identified by the researchers. “Personal relations” came in a close second.

“This research reinforces the critical role of workplaces in protecting women from violence, including domestic violence at work,” says Andrew Harkness, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS)’s healthy workplace specialist.

What the study found

As recently reported in Annals of Epidemiology,1 the researchers identified 648 workplace homicides among U.S. women from 2003 through 2008. They categorized these homicides into four types:

  1. criminal intent, representing 39% of homicides – the perpetrator had no legitimate relationship with the employee or the business and was committing a crime, such as robbery or trespassing, in conjunction with the homicide
  2. customer/client (14%) – the perpetrator had a legitimate relationship with the employee or business and became violent while using the business services. Perpetrators can include customers, clients, patients, students, and inmates
  3. co-worker (14%) – the perpetrator was a current or former employee
  4. personal relations (33%) – the perpetrator had a personal relationship with an employee (includes domestic violence occurring in the workplace)

The most common locations where workplace homicides among women occurred included retail businesses, such as restaurants, cafes, convenience stores, and hotels. Other common locations included commercial stores, public buildings and parking lots. More women died on the job as a result of domestic violence than at the hands of a client such as a student, patient or prisoner, or a current or former co-worker.

Here in Canada, statistics show that 1 in 5 homicides involves an intimate partner. Many instances of domestic violence intrude into the workplace. Research suggests that 70% of domestic violence victims are also abused at work. Furthermore, out of 62 cases reviewed by the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee of Ontario, co-workers in 17% of workplaces were aware of the abuse occurring at home.2

In 2010, Ontario recognized violence and harassment as a workplace hazard through amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. “In effect,” says Andrew Harkness, “the amendments made violence and harassment another form of hazard that employers, once they become aware of it, must act on.”

Under the amendments, employers must develop

  • violence and harassment policies and programs
  • violence risk assessment
  • employee reporting and incident investigation procedures
  • an emergency response procedure (violence only)
  • a process to deal with incidents, complaints and threats of violence, including domestic violence that may spill into the workplace

Challenges for employers

Harkness acknowledges that protecting workers from the risk of domestic violence in particular poses unique challenges. “You really have very little control over the source of the hazard, the abuser. It’s not like providing someone with, say, a piece of personal protective equipment and training them on how to use it. Consequently, it’s harder for employers to determine what level of protection is required.”

Many employers also have concerns about violating privacy and confidentiality, continues Harkness. “‘Should I really be asking questions about people’s personal situations even if I suspect there’s a risk of domestic violence at work?’ From a moral and ethical point of view, there is always a concern about privacy and confidentiality, but in the context of workplace health and safety this concern has no bearing.

“Employers’ responsibility for protecting workers takes priority,” explains Harkness. “For instance, if a worker comes forward and says, ‘I’ve received this threat, and I’m afraid something may happen,’ employers have an obligation to take preventive action. Even if the worker says, ‘But I don’t want you to do anything or tell anybody,’ once employers know of a risk, they no longer have a choice on whether to act. For example, the employer now has to consider possible risks to other workers. Could anyone else be caught in the line of fire, so to speak?”

Harkness notes that the more employers do in advance (e.g., conducting a hazard assessment, educating all workplace parties on their roles and responsibilities, educating managers, supervisors and workers on signs of domestic abuse, identifying steps that can be taken in response to various scenarios, informing all employees of workplace-related resources, creating an environment in which people feel comfortable coming forward…), then the more likely people will feel little stigma in seeking help, enabling employers to take steps to protect their employees.

Harkness points out that one of those steps may include helping workers to help themselves, such as encouraging employees to contact their Employee Assistance Program (EAP). “EAPs can help workers understand their rights, find a lawyer, and connect with local resources. Workplaces without an EAP can connect workers directly to community resources, such as local shelters. Knowing what resources are available can make a huge difference for everyone involved.

How abusers interfere with work

“Make It Our Business,” a campaign of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children (see footnote 2), identifies the following ways in which an abuser can get in the way of a victim’s work. Taking these possibilities into account can help workplaces identify possible abuse victims and take steps to protect them at work as well as other employees who may be put at risk as a consequence of the abuse.

Actions taken before work

  • physically restraining her or keeping her captive
  • hiding or stealing her car keys or transportation money
  • hiding or stealing her workplace identification card, badge or uniform
  • physically assaulting her badly enough that she could not or did not want to go to work
  • preventing her from getting the children ready for school on time or failing to show up for childcare
  • not allowing her to sleep
  • neglecting to bring the car home
  • destroying her work clothes
  • stalking her at home by driving by her house or making constant phone calls
  • lying if the workplace calls to ask where the worker is. The abuser may claim that she is sick, out of town or looking after a sick child

Actions taken during work

  • showing up at work
  • threatening to hurt her at work
  • physically assaulting her while at the workplace
  • making harassing phone calls or sending harassing emails to her work account
  • stalking her while at work (sitting outside the work premises, driving around watching her through windows, walking around her office)
  • asking her to leave her job immediately
  • pestering co-workers with questions about the victim and her activities
  • verbally harassing her co-workers or supervisor
  • threatening or assaulting co-workers and/or supervisors
  • leaving threatening notes on her car
  • destroying things that belong to the victim or to the organization

Actions taken after work

  • confronting her in the parking lot
  • physically assaulting her after work
  • following her home

Putting solutions in place: how WSPS can help

WSPS has an extensive selection of resources that can help workplaces protect workers from violence and harassment, including domestic violence in the workplace. Among the resources:

  • classroom and on-site training
  • e-courses
  • a workplace hazards inspection form specifically for workplace violence
  • Occupational Health and Safety Council of Ontario (OHSCO)’s Workplace Violence Prevention Series:
    • Developing Workplace Violence and Harassment Policies and Programs: What Employers Need to Know
    • Developing Workplace Violence and Harassment Policies and Programs: A Toolbox
    • Domestic Violence Doesn’t Stop When Your Worker Arrives at Work: What Employers Need to Know to Help
    • Domestic Violence Doesn’t Stop When You go to Work: How to get Help or Support a Colleague who may Need Help

WSPS consultants can also help workplaces conduct a hazard assessment and develop a comprehensive violence and harassment program.