Workplace violence ranks as one of the top four causes of on-the-job injuries, according to the Labor Department, which puts a financial and emotional toll on many businesses. While it’s impossible to predict when an incident may happen, there are some warning signs to be aware of and ways small business owners can mitigate the risk.

The size of a business doesn’t predict if or when violence will happen. But for small businesses, the impact can be devastating. Since “reputation is everything,” just one incident of workplace violence can destroy a business’s standing in the community and thus the business, says Melissa Fleischer, president of HR Learning Center, a human resources training center. What’s more, the company may have to contend with lawsuits and legal fees as well as the costs for increased security, lost productivity and wages, which could be irreparable to the business, she said.

“Many times the workplace violence comes from outside your organization and can happen either when strangers come into the workplace and engage in violence or when domestic violence from one of your employee’s family members spills out into your workplace,” said Fleischer. “All of these factors combine to make small businesses likely targets for workplace violence.”

In order to reduce the risk of workplace violence, the experts say a small business owner has to think about it before it happens. That means he or she has to assess the risk placed on the business and its employees.

“The plan has to be related to the kind of work they do,” says William F. Badzmierowski, Director of Instructor Services at CPI, an international training organization. “Whether or not they handle cash, whether or not they have a 24-hour operation,” are things that need to be looked at, he says.

According to OSHA, around 2 million U.S. workers are the victims of violence on the job each year. While it’s true it can strike anywhere and anytime, some workers are at an increased risk. Those, according to OSHA, include ones that exchange money with the public, deliver passengers or goods, work alone or in small groups, work late night hours or operate in high crime areas.

After assessing the risk the small business faces, a plan needs to be drafted advising employees of the rules and regulations governing safety. For example, if employees work the night shift in a high crime area the business owner may encourage them to park their cars in lighted areas. If it’s in an office setting, the employer may institute a rule that no strangers are allowed into the office. 

According to Fleischer, the plans should advise employees of what workplace violence is and how to report any instance of it.

“Workplaces should have safety plans and safety drills as well as instituting emergency notification systems,” says Fleischer. “This way the employer can notify everyone at once that there is an emergency situation and a lockdown in place.  These emergency notification systems can also help employers avoid additional liability.”

Although it’s impossible to know when workplace violence might spill into the office from outside, there are ways to identify the potential for conflict from an employee or someone that does business with the company. According to Fleischer, warning signs that an employee may be contemplating violence include a confrontational attitude, discussions of an attack, threatening co-workers or the boss, bragging about guns, aggressive behavior and abusive behavior and bullying of others.

“There are many potential warning signs for workplace violence but perhaps the most important issue with regard to warning signs … that employees should watch out for is a sudden change of behavior,” says Fleischer.  “Managers and employees need to be aware of the warning signs and understand your organization’s policies for how to report those warning signs to human resources and upper management so that the organization can take action to protects its employees.”

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