About 2 million Americans say they have been victims of workplace violence, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Meanwhile, more than a quarter of all American workers report they have "directly experienced abusive conduct or bullying" while on the job.
Headline-grabbing workplace shootings by disgruntled employees are only a tiny fraction of that total, but lower-grade examples of violence such as threats, verbal abuse, intimidation and physical assaults are widespread.
Sixty-year-old Chattanooga attorney Bob Lype reports these facts and more in a cover story for the Tennessee Bar Journal, a monthly publication of the Tennessee Bar Association. The article is titled, "Violence at Work: How to Deal with Bullying, Intimidation, Threats and Physical Violence."
Lype said despite many memorable news reports, the number of workplace deaths due to violent acts is actually pretty stable. It's the other stuff that seems to be intensifying.
Lype, whose office is on Vance Road in Chattanooga, is something of an expert in workplace violence. He specializes in employment law, representing several small and mid-size companies in the Chattanooga area. While workplace violence cases are rare in his practice, he said, he wrote the article in part to educate himself on the issue. For his work, Lype last month received the Joe Henry Award for Outstanding Legal Writing given by the Tennessee Bar Association. He is a two-time winner of the award.
While listing the legal liabilities employers face, Lype's article suggests employers should hold themselves to a high standard.
"There's a humanitarian aspect to this," he said. "People are dependent on their jobs."
As a result, employers should have an almost "parental sense of concern for the well-being of workers," he said. That means understanding the pressures modern workers face, he said.
"Life is much more complicated and faster-paced [than in previous times]," he said. " People are under a lot of pressure."
Lype said Tennessee law defines unlawful violence at work as assault, aggravated assault, stalking, intimidation or extortion. Under that definition, bullying and threats qualify as workplace violence, he said.
On the other hand, mere bad manners — while not good business practices — are not automatically against the law.
"Crude and boorish behavior is not necessarily unlawful," he explained.
Some laws may complicate workplace safety, he said. For example, in Tennessee it is lawful for permitted gun owners to keep a weapon in the trunk of their vehicles in an employer's parking lot. The so-called "guns in trunks" law does protect companies from liability if someone is injured with an employee's gun due to the "acts of others," he said.
Lype said he recommends several steps for companies to protect themselves and their employees:
-Develop a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence.
-Train managers to notice the telltale signs of employee despair or aggression. Personal problems such as a difficult divorce or home foreclosure can cause employees to be more volatile, he said.
-Realize workplace violence can hurt productivity, so anti-violence policies may actually be cost effective.
Under the surface of this problem is a growing contentiousness many feel has become epidemic in modern America.
"In the last 20 years, jobs have become more transient," he said. "There's not as much loyalty. [And] I think people are just more self-interested."
Contact writer Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.