Encyclopedia of Security and Emergency Management

Living Edition
| Editors: Lauren R. Shapiro, Marie-Helen Maras

Workplace Violence: Assault

  • Duygu Biricik Gulseren
  • E. Kevin KellowayEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69891-5_96-1


Physical assault Workplace violence Homicide Nonfatal workplace assault 


Workplace assault refers to physically violent acts targeted at people at work or on duty with the intention of hurting them (LeBlanc and Kelloway 2002).


For teachers, nurses, police, and many others, “bites, cuts, bruises are part of the job” (“5 most violent workplaces in Nova Scotia” 2014). Although this potential hazard may have been considered for many years as an unpreventable aspect of their employment, employees and their employers are now seeking ways to prevent workplace assaults. This entry aims to define, describe, and explain workplace assault.

Definitions of workplace assault used in different jurisdictions, such as by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), includes threats of violent acts within the domain of workplace assault as well as physical violent acts themselves (Jenkins 1996). Some theorists have also suggested that assault can also be psychological or verbal (e.g., Gillespie et al. 2010); however, this view is increasingly rare. For example, Schat et al. (2006) operational definition of workplace assault included four categories of behaviors: (1) pushing, grabbing, and slapping; (2) kicking, biting, and hitting; (3) hitting or physically attempting to hit with an object; and (4) attacking with a weapon including a knife.

The lack of a consensus in the definition of workplace assault is a problem for three reasons. First, studies reporting prevalence rates are incomparable if they are based on different conceptual and operational definition of workplace assault. Second, victims of workplace assaults may have difficulty in identifying the problem; therefore, they may underreport incidents. Third, effective prevention strategies may differ depending on the adopted definition. For example, policies targeted to prevent verbal assault may be ineffective for situations where the problem of assault was conceptualized as purely physical acts. The best solution currently available is for researchers to use an operational definition (e.g., see Schat et al. 2006, above) in their reports which will allow everyone to understand what behaviors were included. In order to understand the complexity of workplace assault, the rest of the chapter will describe the literature regarding prevalence, sources, antecedents, outcomes, mediators, moderators, and prevention.

Prevalence of Workplace Assault

Nationally representative studies across the world report the incident rate of workplace assaults as 8% in Denmark (Hogh et al. 2003), 6% in the United States (Schat et al. 2006), 4% in Finland (Salminen 1997), and 1.5% in the United Kingdom (Cookson and Buckley 2012). Differences in national prevalence rates may reflect cultural features but may also reflect differences in sampling strategies and/or definitions of assault. For example, Francis and Kelloway (2007) adopted the NIOSH’s (1996) definition, which includes threats of violence and reported that 21% of their sample reported being victimized. Schat et al. (2006) excluded threats of violence and implemented a more rigorous sampling plan resulting in a prevalence rate of 6%.

Although workplace assault has a low base rate for the general population, workers belonging to specific occupational groups are exposed to assault more often than are others. Employees in protective services, such as police, military, and correctional workers, are at the highest risk (Schonfeld and Chang 2017). For these workers, violence is an expected part of the job as dealing with violent situations is literally part of the job description, and workers are typically provided with specific training and weapons in order to defend themselves and to stop potential assaults. However, the next highest risk group comprises individuals in occupations that work with the public to provide a service, such as nurses, teachers, retail workers, and bus drivers. In contrast to workers in protective services, service workers are rarely provided with specific training or means to defend themselves from assault.

LeBlanc and Kelloway (2002) suggested that occupational differences in the prevalence of assault were a function of specific occupational risk factors. They showed that such occupational risk factors (e.g., working alone, at night, around valuables, caring for other, or being the position of denying a service or enforcing rules) predicted workers’ experience of violent assault and psychological aggression across occupations. In doing so, they demonstrated that the risk of violence was a foreseeable aspect of the job.

Sources of Workplace Assault

The United States Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA 1996) classification of general workplace violence is based on the source and thus also applies to the topic of assault. The perpetrator of the assault can be (1) a stranger with a criminal intent such as a robber (i.e., type I violence), (2) a customer or client (i.e., type II violence), (3) a colleague or a past employee of the victim’s employer (i.e., type III violence), or (4) someone from the victim’s personal life, such as a family member (i.e., type IV violence). This classification is important because public-initiated and organization-initiated assaults have different outcomes (LeBlanc and Kelloway 2002). Type 1 and Type 2 public-initiated assaults are harder to prevent than Types 3 and 4 organizational-initiated assaults. Specifically, organizational policies developed to reduce or stop workplace assault perpetrated by insiders, but they are not capable, per se, of controlling the behaviors of customers and strangers.

Antecedents of Workplace Assault

Victim Characteristics

Victims of workplace assault share few demographic characteristics. Schat et al. (2006) showed that workers who are between 26 and 40 years old were more likely to be assaulted at work than those younger or older than this age range. Piquero et al. (2013) systematic review showed that, although male workers are more likely than female workers to be victims of a workplace assault, women reported assault incidents to the formal authorities more than men. Hogh and colleagues (2003) also noted that former victims of workplace assault were at risk for being assaulted again, perhaps because they did not report the initial incident. They attributed the positive relationship between past and future victimization to the worker’s continuing tenure in a high-risk occupation.

Perpetrator Characteristics

Although the majority of the studies on workplace assault examined risk factors, studies have identified common characteristics across perpetrators. These included a history of violence, aggression and substance abuse, unstable self-esteem, negative affect, and trait anger (Barling et al. 2009). Although there is a small effect, some perpetrators suffer from mental illnesses (Barling et al. 2009). Lastly, client/customer stress due to an unfavorable interaction with the worker or perpetrator’s perceived aggression was also found to trigger workplace assaults (Piquero et al. 2013).

Work Characteristics

In general, dealing with the public, working in impoverished locations, handling money, or working in night shifts were primary risk factors for being a victim of an assault at work (Piquero et al. 2013; Schonfeld and Chang 2017). Studies conducted in the healthcare settings showed that working in the stressful environments, such as emergency rooms, psychiatric units, and addiction treatment facilities, increased the likelihood of being assaulted at work. LeBlanc and Kelloway (2002) identified 22 risk factors for violence. Their results showed that workers who handled weapons, exercised physical control over others, and dealt with individuals under medication were the most at risk for public-initiated assault (for the full list of risk factors, please review LeBlanc and Kelloway 2002). Lastly, working in stressful environments was associated with being a target of a workplace assault (Piquero et al. 2013).

Outcomes, Mediators, and Moderators of Workplace Assault

Although the prevalence rates of workplace assault are the lowest among all types of workplace aggression and violence, they have detrimental consequences on workers and their employers. These outcomes can be organized into two major categories: (1) health-related outcomes and (2) organizational outcomes. Health-related outcomes include impaired physical and psychological well-being indicators, such as increased somatic health complaints, burnout, depression, and low self-esteem (e.g., Hurrell et al. 1996; Mueller and Tschan 2011; Schat and Kelloway 2003). Organizational outcomes include undesirable consequences, such as financial burden to the organization, negative job-related affect, and turnover (Piquero et al. 2013; Schat and Kelloway 2003). Fear of future violence mediates the relationship between assault and its negative outcomes (Rogers and Kelloway 1997). Additionally, organizational support moderates the relationship between workplace violence and its negative outcomes such as that as organizational support increases, the link becomes weaker (Schat and Kelloway 2003).

Preventing Workplace Assault

The majority of intervention studies on workplace assault have been conducted in healthcare and retail settings. Workplace interventions aiming to prevent workplace violence are categorized in three groups: (1) environmental interventions, (2) organizational and administrative interventions, and (3) behavioral/interpersonal interventions. Environmental interventions, such as lighting the entrances or electronically controlled cash drop boxes, aim at changing the physical environment so that perpetrators are discouraged to attempt to assault. Organizational and administrative interventions involve policies and practices to protect workers from possible assaults. For example, many organizations have “zero tolerance policy” for workplace violence or harassment. This policy not only gives the message that assault is unwelcome in that workplace but also warns potential perpetrators about the consequences of their actions. Lastly, behavioral or interpersonal interventions include training programs to educate workers so that they know how to recognize and deal with assault. For example, conflict de-escalation techniques training programs teach employees how to recognize the cues of a potential assault and how to avoid it by taking preventative actions such as calming down the potential perpetrator. Studies have shown that environmental interventions are the most effective for preventing workplace assaults, but not all of research implement rigorous designs (Wassell 2009).


Workplace assault referring to a physical attack at work is a specific type of workplace violence. Compared to the verbal and psychological violence and aggression, workplace assaults have a lower occurrence rate. However, the prevalence of this problem is highest in occupations involving those in protective or service-related employment. Assaulted employees suffer from ill health and produce poor organizational outcomes, mostly because of the fear of future violence against them. Based on the victim, perpetrator, and workplace characteristics, workplace assaults can be predicted.

There are several different ways to prevent workplace assaults, such as establishing environmental control methods, developing assault related policies, and training employees for possible assault scenarios. As a starting point, organizations should identify the primary sources of assault in their workplaces because the effectiveness of action can differ depending on the type of perpetrator (organizational/insider or public/outsider). There are several different types of workplace interventions on this topic. Among the intervention strategies, environmental control is known as the most effective in preventing workplace assaults by public perpetrators. In such cases, organizational decision-makers can consider redesigning their offices to reduce physical contact between their employees and the public. If Type III or Type IV violence is more common than the others, zero-tolerance policies and respectful work environment training have been effective for prevention.

Organizations must keep a record of incidents of assault that have occurred in their facilities. This is important, not only to identify the common sources of assault but also the employee and work characteristics that contribute to assault risk factors. Lastly, creating an open culture is essential to improve safety in the workplace. Employees should be encouraged to share their opinions about the effectiveness of the measures that have already been taken and to suggest what else they would like to see implemented to increase safety.



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Future Readings

  1. Jenkins, L. (1996). Violence in the workplace: Risk factors and prevention strategies. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Division of Safety Research.Google Scholar
  2. Schat, A., Frone, M. R., & Kelloway, E. K. (2006). Prevalence of workplace aggression in the U.S. workforce. In J. J. Hurrell, J. Barling, & E. K. Kelloway (Eds.), Handbook of workplace violence (pp. 47–89). Thousand Oaks: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Wassell, J. T. (2009). Workplace violence intervention effectiveness: A systematic literature review. Safety Science, 47(8), 1049–1055.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Saint Mary’s UniversityHalifaxCanada