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What Are the Next Steps in Addressing Workplace Violence?

Kelly Bernish, CSP, founding member, ASSP Women in Safety Excellence (WISE) Common Interest Group
Jan 07, 2019

On Oct. 29, 2018, ASSP hosted more than 50 safety experts for a Women’s Workplace Safety Summit. During this daylong event in Rosemont, Ill., sponsored by Amazon, three breakout groups met to address the gender-specific issues related to workplace violence, PPE and leadership. Kelly Bernish, CSP, facilitated the workplace violence group.

This article is part one of a three-part series designed to help stakeholders better understand the purpose of the summit and how we and our partners are working to remove the gender-related barriers to success for women.

Learn more about the personal protective equipment (PPE) group from facilitator Abby Ferri, CSP, administrator of our Women in Safety Excellence (WISE) Common Interest Group.

Learn more about the women in leadership group from facilitator Pam Walaski, CSP, CHMM, ASSP director-at-large.

stressed healthcare workerAs a founding member of ASSP’s Women in Safety Excellence (WISE) Common Interest Group, I was thrilled to attend and be a facilitator at the Women’s Workplace Safety Summit. Members of WISE have said for many years that the next leg of our journey would be to address some longstanding issues that affect women in the workplace — workers and safety professionals alike — and to spur some research on these issues.

To set the stage for our workgroup discussions, Cori Wong, Ph.D., assistant vice president for gender equity at Colorado State University, shared her insights on gender inclusivity as it relates to occupational safety. Her thought-provoking presentation was eye-opening and enlightening.

Workplace Violence Factors, Barriers and Impacts

Knowing that acts of workplace violence are the leading cause of death for women at work, we focused our discussions around three key questions.

  1. What factors cause workplace violence to have a disproportionate impact on women?
  2. What barriers prevent employers from better protecting women on the job?
  3. What impacts on people, families and employers result from acts of workplace violence against women?

The group explored the many reasons that workplace violence affects women disproportionately. For example, some women are physically smaller. Women often hold lower-level jobs where they may suffer a power differential about which there is little empathy or recognition. In addition, fewer women hold higher-level jobs (i.e., senior management) where they might be able to prompt company action on the issue. Fear of retaliation, fear of being fired for reporting an incident, shame and lack of support systems can also affect women’s willingness to report these incidents.

Similarly, many barriers affect employers’ ability to better protect women in the workplace. These include fear of legal retaliation in response to action taken based on a reported incident and tacit acceptance that violence is part of the job, a common mind-set in the healthcare sector. In some cases, employers have failed to enforce policies or have not trained supervisors to identify warning signs related to violence. And there’s also the “it won’t happen here” mind-set that can prevent an employer from fully assessing the potential risks and the need for preventive measures.

Workplace violence has many far-reaching consequences for employees, employers and society as a whole. Victims may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse. In turn, this can increase absenteeism, decrease productivity and degrade overall worker safety. The normalization of violence also creates a hostile work environment, which can cause some workers to transfer these behaviors outside the workplace.

Identifying Next Steps

Our productive conversations identified several next-step activities:

  1. Define workplace violence for member/public-facing purposes.
  2. Collect the right data.
  3. Develop an awareness campaign that leverages the WISE group, our ChapterWISE program and speaking opportunities.
  4. Identify the actions other organizations are taking and create a collaborative document.
  5. Be an advocate on this issue, including more work with regulators to develop standards.

We also want to engage a broader group of stakeholders in our efforts to achieve these outcomes, including other professional associations, trade and labor organizations and nongovernmental organizations focused on women’s issues. We also recognize that much is already being done as the issue of workplace violence transcends safety and the occupational safety and health field. Our goal is to keep making progress while capitalizing on what is already available.

ASSP is currently working on an active shooter technical report that will include guidance on assessing and preventing workplace violence risks. In addition, ASSP plans to publish a report on the summit in early 2019. WISE is sponsoring a collaboration session on the summit during Safety 2019, the Society’s annual professional development conference, next June. Please join us for what I’m sure will be an important discussion.

I also encourage you to join our continuing conversation on these topics in the ASSP Community. Simply log in using your username and password, or create a new account to begin sharing your insights and expertise.

Jeffrey Dalto
The Safety and Health Empowerment for Women in Trades (SHEWT) project addresses this issue as well. Here's an introduction: 


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