Violence on the Job — a Global Problem

Taxi drivers, health care workers, teachers among those at highest risk

Released exclusively in Geneva and Washington, D.C.

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Vittorio Di Martino, ILO labor expert and co-author of the ILO report, Violence at Work, will be available for media interviews in Washington, DC on Wednesday, July 15, and Thursday, July 16. To schedule a time, please call (703) 820-2244.

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France, Argentina, Romania, Canada and England have reported the highest rates of assaults and sexual harassment on the job, says the International Labour Office (ILO) in a new report, the most extensive worldwide survey of violence in the workplace.

In the United States, some 1,000 killings take place in job settings every year, says the 156-page ILO report, Violence At Work. Homicide has become the leading cause of death on the job for American women, and the second leading cause for men.

The ILO report focuses on global trends. The main findings of the report include:

  • The outbursts of violence “occurring at workplaces around the globe suggest that this issue is truly one that transcends the boundaries of a particular country, work setting or occupational group,” the report says.
  • Some workplaces and occupations, like taxi drivers, health care workers, teachers, social workers, domestics in foreign countries, people working alone, especially in late night retail operations, are at higher risk than others of experiencing such violence.
  • Women are especially at risk, because so many are concentrated in the high-risk occupations, particularly as teachers, social workers, nurses, and bank and shop workers.
  • Both workers and employers show a growing recognition that “psychological violence” is a serious form of violence. Psychological violence includes bullying or mobbing — group psychological harassment.

“For example, a 1994 survey by the Canadian Union of Public Employees showed that almost 70 percent of respondents believed that verbal aggression was the leading form of violence against them,” says the ILO report.

The ILO’s goal in producing this report is to provide information and analysis that will enable “policy-makers in government agencies, employers’ and workers’ organizations, health and safety professionals, personnel managers, trainers and workers to promote dialogue, policies and initiatives to repudiate violence and remove it from the workplace now.” The ILO has published in recent years reports and guidelines on such related subjects as stress, sexual harassment, and alcohol and drug abuse in the workplace.

The ILO stresses the difficulty of comparing rates of violence between countries. Official statistics on workplace homicide, physical and sexual attacks, sexual harassment and psychological violence are often inadequate where they do exist at all. However, the ILO report draws on an extensive 1996 survey of workers in 32 countries on what they perceived happened to them on the job, the International Crime (Victim) Survey.

According to the data gathered in this survey, French employees were the most likely to believe they had been victims of violence in the workplace, with 11.2 percent of males and 8.9 percent of females reporting assaults over the previous year. In addition, 19.8 percent of females reported “sexual incidents” in the same 12-month period.

The information from selected countries in the 1996 survey (the full table can be found at the end of this release) include: Argentina, 6.1 percent of males and 11.8 percent of females reported assaults in the previous year, and 16.6 percent of females reported sexual incidents; Romania, 8.7, 4.1 and 10.8; Canada, 3.9, 5.0 and 9.7 percent; England/Wales (taken as one unit), 3.2, 6.3 and 8.6; and United States, 1.0, 4.2 and 5.3.

A 1996 European Union survey based on 15,800 interviews in its 15 member states showed that 4 percent of workers (6 million) were subjected to physical violence in the preceding year; 2 percent (3 million workers) to sexual harassment; and 8 percent (12 million workers) to intimidation and bullying.

Psychological violence

In recent years, new evidence has been emerging of the impact and harm caused by non-physical violence, often referred to as psychological violence. Such psychological violence includes:

Bullying — Workplace bullying is one of the fastest growing complaints of workplace violence. It constitutes offensive behavior through vindictive, cruel, malicious or humiliating attempts to undermine an individual or groups of employees through such activities as:

  • Making life difficult for those who have the potential to do the bully’s job better than the bully;
  • Shouting at staff to get things done;
  • Insisting that the bully’s way of doing things is the only right way;
  • Refusing to delegate because the bully feels no one else can be trusted;
  • Punishing others by constant criticism or by removing their responsibilities for being too competent.

Research carried out in the United Kingdom found that 53 percent of employees had been victims of bullying at work and that 78 percent had witnessed such behavior. The impact on those concerned can be severe.

A Finnish study on the effects of bullying on municipal employees, for example, indicated that 40 percent of bullied workers felt “much” or “very much” stress, 49 percent felt unusually tired on the job, and 30 percent were nervous “often” or “constantly.”

Ganging up or mobbing — A growing problem in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, it involves ganging up on or mobbing a targeted employee and subjecting that person to psychological harassment. Mobbing includes such behavior as making continuous negative remarks about a person or criticizing them constantly; isolating a person by leaving them without social contacts; gossiping or spreading false information. In Sweden, it is estimated that mobbing is a factor in 10 to 15 percent of suicides.

“The new profile of violence at work which emerges is one which gives equal emphasis to physical and psychological behavior, and one which gives full recognition to the significance of minor acts of violence,” says Vittorio Di Martino, co-author of the ILO report.

Working alone

The number of people working alone is increasing globally, because of automation, sub-contracting, teleworking, networking and the “new” self-employment. Working alone is not automatically more dangerous than other employment, but does have its special situations, which include:

  • Working alone in small shops, gas stations and kiosks — Such workers are often seen as “easy” targets by aggressors. In the United States, gas station workers rank fourth among the occupations most exposed to homicide.
  • Working alone outside normal hours — Cleaners, maintenance or repair staff appear at special risk of suffering physical and sexual attacks.
  • Of lone workers, taxi drivers in many places are at the greatest risk of violence — Night-time is the highest-risk driving period, and as in other occupations, customer intoxication appears to play a role in precipitating violence. A 1990 Australian study of taxi drivers disclosed that taxi drivers ran 28 times the risk of non-sexual assault and almost 67 times the rate of robbery compared to the community at large.

Among the countries surveyed in depth in the report are:

The United States — One major estimate of the number of non-fatal assaults occurring in American workplaces comes from the American National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a massive, annual and nation-wide household-based study of more than 100,000 individuals aged 12 or older. The NCVS data showed that, each year between 1987 and 1992, almost 1 million people were assaulted while at work, which amounted to 15 percent of the total violence reported. Injuries were reported in 16 percent of workplace assaults.

Workplace violence in the United States is clustered in certain occupations. Taxicab drivers have the highest risk of workplace homicides of any American occupation. The retail trade and service industries account for more than half of workplace homicides and 85 percent of non-fatal workplace assaults.

An average of 20 workers are murdered each week in the United States.

United Kingdom — A survey conducted by the British Retail Consortium into crime in the retail sector found that more than 11,000 retail staff workers were victims of physical violence on the job in the 1994/95 financial year, and 350,000 suffered threats and verbal abuse.

The majority of physical attacks — 59 percent — occurred when staff members were trying to prevent theft. Other causes of physical violence derive from dealing with troublemakers, 16 percent; robbery incidents, 10 percent; angry customers, 5 percent; drunk or drugged people, 5 percent.

The risk of physical violence was put at 5 attacks per 1,000 staff members; threats of violence, 35:1,000; and verbal violence, 81:1,000.

Japan — A severe economic recession led to major corporate down-sizing, shattering long-held assumptions about staying with one company for the duration of one’s working life. The loss of lifetime job security and seniority systems has been accompanied by alleged bullying of white-collar workers.

The Tokyo Managers’ Union established a “bullying hot-line” that received more than 1,700 requests for consultations in two short periods in June and October of 1996. Stress was a common complaint of all callers, with many seeking urgent mental health treatment. Families whose members had committed or attempted suicide were among the callers.

Germany — An extensive national survey conducted in Germany in 1991 by the Federal Institute of Occupational Health and Safety disclosed that 93 percent of the women questioned had been sexually harassed at the workplace during their working lives.

The Philippines — Migration for work purposes has long been a feature of the Filipino employment market. According to data gathered in the Philippines, more than half of all overseas Filipino contract workers are women. Many are hired for domestic service and entertainment. Research has shown that these Filipino women workers are frequently and disproportionately affected by violence associated with their employment.

“Many affected workers report maltreatment, a general term that includes pulling the hair, battering, beating the hands with any instrument, burning of the flesh of the victim, banging the head against the wall, throwing of toxic, chemically dangerous liquids,” the report says. “Employers commonly hold the worker’s passport as a way of ensuring continued subservience.”

Causes of Violence in the Workplace

The report says that violence in the workplace stems from a combination of causes, that includes the individual, the work environment, the conditions of work, the way in which co-workers interact, the way that customers or clients interact with workers, and the interaction between managers and workers.

“We reject the idea that the sole reasons for workplace violence stem from the individual,” says Mr. Di Martino. “We will never succeed in either preventing further violence or dealing with violence after it occurs by moving solely on that premise.”

Cost of Workplace Violence

Violence causes immediate and often long-term disruption to interpersonal relationships, the organization of work and the overall working environment, the report says. Employers bear the direct cost of lost work and improved security measures. Indirect costs include reduced efficiency and productivity, loss in product quality, loss of company image and a reduction in the number of clients. Some examples of the cost of violence include:

In the United States, the total costs of workplace violence to employers amounted to more than $4 billion in 1992, according to a survey conducted by the National Safe Workplace Institute. In Canada, wage-loss claims by hospital workers from acts of violence and force have increased by 88 percent since 1985, according to the British Columbia Workers’ Compensation Board. In Germany, the direct cost of psychological violence in an enterprise of 1,000 workers has been calculated at $112,000 (200,000 DM) per year, along with $56,000 of indirect costs.

Response to Violence

The ILO report says that the response to violence should be multi-faceted:

  • preventive, looking at the causes behind the violence, not only at its effects;
  • targeted, because you cannot attack every kind of violence in the same way;
  • multiple, in the sense that a combination of different types of response are needed;
  • immediate, a planned response of immediate intervention should be ready ahead of time to contain the effects of violence, much as the response to terrorist situations is planned and imposed immediately;
  • participatory, in that all the people directly and indirectly part of the violence, including family members, top management, colleagues and victims, become involved;
  • a long-term response, in that a follow up is needed because the consequences of violence are also long-term, so that a response restricted to the immediate one is not enough.

The ILO reports a growing recognition that in confronting violence a comprehensive approach is required. Instead of searching for a single solution good for any problem and situation, the full range of causes that generate violence should be analyzed and a variety of intervention strategies adopted. The response to workplace violence is too frequently limited, episodic and ill-defined.

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Violence at Work, by Duncan Chappell and Vittorio De Martino, International Labour Office, Geneva, 1998. ISBN 92-2-110335-8. Price: 25 Swiss francs.

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