Risk Management and Workplace Violence

By Craig S. Gundry, PSP, cATO, CHS-III

Workplace Violence: The Threat in Perspective

By comparison to many other security threats, workplace violence incidents are low-moderate frequency events and rarely result in lethal consequences. According to US labor statistics, workplace violence is only responsible for 18% of deaths in professional office and healthcare settings—less than transportation accidents or even slips and falls.[i] Nevertheless, nearly 2 million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year.[ii] For reasons of liability, productivity, and duty of care, it is important that all companies implement reasonable measures to mitigate the probability and impact of workplace violence incidents.

Most incidents of workplace violence are examples of impromptu violence, spontaneous and unplanned acts of violence often happening in the heat of the moment.[iii] These types of incidents can range from verbal threats and oral abuse all the way up the continuum of aggression to physical assault and non-premeditated murder.

Of greatest concern from a risk management perspective are acts of intended violence (also referred to as ‘targeted violence’) which result in a planned, premeditated act.[iv] Most acts of mass homicide in workplace environments are examples of targeted violence and culminate as the result of progression on a ‘pathway’ of evolution over time.

Many individuals who perpetrate such attacks often align with Dr. Park Dietz’s definition of a Pseudocommando.[v] Psudocommandos often evolve from angry, narcissistic personalities and harbor perceived injustices as the basis for revenge as motive. Violent fantasies become a refuge for the psudocommando’s damaged ego and provide a sense of power and control.[vi] Without intervention, this process may continue into obsession and escalate until violent fantasy has become a template for action. If this pathway progression continues unabated until nihilism takes place, commitment to violence is affirmed and often commenced in a planned manner or initiated by a provoking trigger event (e.g., termination, demotion, family crisis, etc.).

By contrast other security threats and even incidents of impromptu violence, acts of mass homicide are low in frequency and rarely does statistical probability as a sole factor justify risk reduction. For instance, the FBI documented 52 active shooter attacks in the United States between 2000 and 2017 involving educational institutions.[vii][viii][ix] Considering the presence of over 139,000 schools and post-secondary intuitions in the US, the estimated probability of an individual school experiencing an active shooter attack over the eighteen year reporting period is 0.0004.[x]

However, the low statistical probability of active shooter risk rarely matches with public perspective. For instance, in a 2018 survey by Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, 61% of county residents polled expressed fear of a mass shooting in local schools.[xi] According to the 2018 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools, 34% of parents reported fear for their child’s safety at school.[xii] In a 2018 survey of Whatcom County public school parents, school security tied with topics of student support services and access to career and technical education opportunities as number one priorities.[xiii]

Psychologists attribute the public’s tendency to overestimate the probability of tragic events to a heuristic called availability bias.[xiv] This phenomenon most commonly occurs as an inaccurate deviation in judgement in response to memorable and emotionally-impactful events. In today’s society, this situation is often compounded by the extended duration and dramatic presentation of news media reporting in the aftermath of tragic events

For most organizations, the probability of attack as a sole factor rarely justifies serious risk reduction. In most cases, it’s the potentially devastating consequences of an attack that warrant concern. Aside from the obvious and horrific impact of loss of life, active shooter attacks universally result in extended disruption of facility operations, loss due to reduced productivity, and diversion of leadership attention to crisis management. The duration of operational disruption often spans months before police have released the facility as a crime scene, cleanup and remediation is completed, and post-incident recovery activities have concluded.

In cases where the horror of the event is deeply imprinted into the psyche of the public, the facility may be deemed permanently inhabitable due to its presence as a reminder of the tragedy. Rather than repair and restore Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown Public Schools opted to demolish the building and build a new replacement school at an estimated cost of $50M.[xv] Similarly, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act authorized $25 million to replace building 12 in Parkland, Florida. In the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting, the owner decided to permanently close the business as a nightclub and rebuild the site as a memorial and museum.

Depending the organization’s responsiveness in managing the post-incident psychological consequences, the effects of an attack can easily result in exodus of employees and long-term negative impact on workplace culture. In addition to psychological wounds suffered by victims of attacks, the trauma of mass violence can extend far beyond the local community with measurable effects of sadness and anxiety experienced vicariously by people nationwide.[xvi]

In addition to psychological impact on the population, lack of consumer confidence and perception of safety in the aftermath of events can have significant financial consequences. In the year following the 2015 Bardo Museum and Sousse attacks, the Tunisian tourism industry witnessed a 35% decline resulting in a $1.5 billion loss in gross national product.[xvii]

When all risk factors are assessed in context, it is usually the combined results of duty of care obligation (i.e., legal and moral responsibility for occupant safety), community perceptions and expectations, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of an attack that warrant a balanced and diligent approach to risk control.

Risk Management Strategy and Active Assailant Attacks

Effective security programs employ a multi-layered approach to controlling risks of violence by reducing both the Probability and Criticality of attack events. Effective security programs typically employ a combined approach to reducing risk probability and risk criticality. In the context of security risk management, risk probability is the result of Threat (an adversary with intent and capability to cause harm) and Vulnerability (the state of conditions that would allow the adversary to succeed in causing the risk event). Proactive security measures aim to reduce Risk Probability by either reducing Threat or reducing Vulnerability. If proactive measures are implemented effectively, they may be successful in reducing Risk Probability, but there is always an element of uncertainty. To further reduce risk, reactive/mitigative measures should be employed to reduce the harmful effect of risk events (Risk Criticality).

In security design theory, this concept of employing multiple layers of proactive and mitigative measures aimed at risk reduction  is often described as concentric rings of protection. The following diagram illustrates this concept as it relates to Type III workplace violence (past or present employees). The outermost rings of the diagram (colored in blue) represent proactive measures aimed at reducing risk probability. This is then followed by inner rings (red) representing mitigative measures aimed at decreasing the severity of attacks through effective response.

Risk Management and Security Strategy for Workplace Active Shooter Events

Proactive risk management starts with reducing potential Threat. This is first accomplished by reducing the potential conditions that contribute to the formation of an adversary’s intent or progression on the pathway of targeted violence. Pre-employment screening, reinforcement of positive workplace culture, providing access to employee assistance programs, and management practices that reinforce employee dignity are all aimed at reducing threat from insider adversaries. For outsider adversaries (e.g., angry customers, psychologically-disordered visitors, etc.), examples of proactive measures include training staff in conflict de-escalation, ‘do-not-admit’ and trespass of threatening patrons, and presence of security officers as a deterrent to aggressive behavior.

Additionally, many individuals who commit acts of mass violence in the workplace align with Dietz’s definition of a pseudocommando.  Extensive research over the past 25 years has established that most acts of Type III workplace violence by pseudocommandos are precipitated by behaviors that if recognized and properly assessed can warn of potential violence and provide opportunity for intervention. Effective implementation of threat assessment and management as a protective strategy requires training supervisors to identify potential threat behaviors and establishing a formal system to investigate and assess threats, and manage potential threatening situations before they result in violence.

The aforementioned measures are often effective in reducing the probability of violence perpetrated by employees, but if measures employed to prevent attacks are unsuccessful or an outsider adversary targets the facility in a manner that evades our proactive influence, having a physical protection system (PPS) that uses a performance-based design approach becomes the most critical line of defense influencing the overall consequences of the attack.

In the context of active assailant attacks, performance-based physical security design integrates Detection, Delay, and Response elements in a manner that mathematically reconciles the time required for an adversary to commence mass killing and the time required for detection and response by security or police.

If an attack does occur, additional measures are implemented to mitigate the impact of the risk event. In regard to active shooter attacks, this includes early event detection and alert communications to expedite the response of employees, emergency response plans and employee training, effective facility provisions and infrastructure for egress/escape, activation of additional barrier layers to delay access to employees (safe rooms), and the expedited response of armed security or police officers capable of effectively intercepting and neutralizing a threat before it can cause mass violence.

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Copyright © 2019 by Craig S. Gundry, PSP, cATO, CHS-III

CIS consultants offer a range of services to assist organizations in managing risks of workplace aggression and active shooter violence.  Contact us for more information.


[i] Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). Bureau of Labor Statistics. N.p. 2015. | Cited percentage of 18% is derived from analysis of 2015 workplace fatalities for NAICS categories Health care and social assistance, Professional and buisness swervices, and Professional and technical services

[ii] Workplace Violence Overview. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. US Department of Labor. N.p. https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/workplaceviolence/. Accessed 25 October 2017.

[iii] Calhoun, Fredrick, and Weston, Stephen. Threat Assessment and Management Strategies: Identifying the Hunters and the Howlers. CRC Press. Boca Raton, FL. 2016. pp 25.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Dietz, Park D. “Mass, Serial, and Sensational Homicides.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine.  62:49-91. 1986.

[vi] Meloy, J. Reid, and Hoffman, Jens. International Handbook of Threat Assessment. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2014.

[vii] Blair, J. Pete, and Schweit, Katherine W. (2014). A Study of Active Shooter Incidents 2000-2013. Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. 2014.

[viii] Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2014 and 2015, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. 2016.

[ix] Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. 2018.

[x] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Digest of Education Statistics, 2016 (NCES 2017-094), Chapter 2.

[xi] County Survey Finds Support for Gun Control, Concerns About Mass Shooting at Schools. Press Release: April 5, 2018. Center for the Study of Local Issues, Anne Arundel Community College.

[xii] School security: Is your child safe at school? – PDK Poll 2018. http://pdkpoll.org/results/school-security-is-your-child-safe-at-school

[xiii] OSPI NEWS RELEASE: Counseling, Mental Health Top Priority, Public Says. Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. August 28, 2018.

[xiv] Tversky, Amos; Kahneman, Daniel (1973). “Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability”. Cognitive Psychology. 5 (2): 207–232.

[xv] Delgadillo, Natalie. With Shootings on the Rise, Schools Turn to ‘Active Shooter’ Insurance. http://www.governing.com/topics/education/gov-cost-of-active-shooters-insurance.html. June 2018.

[xvi] Dore, B., Ort, L., Braverman, O., & Ochsner, K. N. (2015). Sadness shifts to anxiety over time and distance from the national tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Psychological Science, 26(4), 363–373.

[xvii] Bensemra, Zohra. After Islamist attacks, Tunisia’s tourism struggles. Reuters. June 25, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-tourism-idUSKCN0ZB0B8