Violence at work, ranging from bullying to sexual harassment and even murder, has reached epidemic levels in some countries, according to a new report by the International Labour Organisation.
What is more, according to "Violence at work,Third edition", the global cost of workplace violence is costing untold millions of dollars in losses in other countries due to causes including absenteeism and sick leave.
The report, written by Vittorio Di Martino, an international expert on stress and workplace violence, and Duncan Chappell, past president of the New South Wales Mental Health Review, Australia, and the Commonwealth Arbitral Tribunal in the UK, also finds that professions once regarded as sheltered from workplace violence are being exposed to increasing acts of violence.
In both developed and developing countries, areas such as teaching, social services, library services and health care are no longer immune.
"Bullying, harassment, mobbing and allied behaviors can be just as damaging as outright physical violence," the authors say.
"Today, the instability of many types of jobs places huge pressures on workplaces, and we're seeing more of these forms of violence."
In Germany, for example, they cite a 2002 study which estimated that more than 800,000 workers were victims of mobbing, where a group of workers target an individual for psychological harassment.
In Spain, an estimated 22 per cent of officials in public administration were victims of mobbing. In France, the number of acts of aggression against French transport workers, including taxicab drivers, rose from 3,051 in 2001 to 3,185 in 2002.
In Japan, meanwhile, the number of cases brought before the courts totalled 625,572 between April 2002 and March 2003, with instances of harassment and bullying almost doubling from five per cent of cases to almost 10 per cent during the same period.
In addition, the authors also address growing concerns about terrorism, calling it "one of the new faces of workplace violence…contributing to the already-volatile mix of aggressive acts taking place on the job."
In developing countries, the most vulnerable workers include women, migrants and children, according to the report.
In Malaysia, 11,851 rape and molestation cases at the workplace were reported between 1997 and May 2001. Widespread sexual harassment and abuse were major concerns in South Africa, Ukraine, Kuwait and Hong Kong, China, among others.
In South Africa, meanwhile, health care workers bear the brunt of workplace violence, according to the study. Over one 12-month period, a survey showed nine per cent of those employed in the private health sector and up to 17 per cent of those in the public sector experienced physical violence. But on a more positive note, the study cited improvements in England, Wales and the United States.
In England and Wales, the estimated 849,000 incidents of workplace violence in 2002-2003, including 431,000 physical assaults and 418,000 threats, represented a decline from 1.3 million such incidents cited in a previous survey.
In the United States, where homicide is the third leading cause of death at work, the number of workplace murders has declined in recent years, with a similar trend for non-fatal assaults.
The report says women represent approximately six out of 10 of all victimized workers because of their concentration in jobs considered high-risk for assault.
The report admits, however, that cost of this violence, while high, is often difficult to calculate. Some countries, such as Australia, estimate costs to employers to be between 6 and 13 billion Australian dollars. In the European Union, studies show a significant correlation between health-related absences and exposure to violence at work.
The report also acknowledges that growing awareness of the need to tackle workplace violence has spawned the development of new and effective prevention strategies.
The study highlights a number of "best practice" examples from local and national governments, enterprises and trade unions from around the world that have successfully implemented "zero tolerance" polices and violence-prevention training programmes.
What's more, many countries have now explicitly recognized violence in their national occupational health and safety legislation. Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Poland and Sweden have recently adopted new legislation or amended existing laws and regulations to address violence at work, the report points out.