Image: Defining Aggressive Behaviours

Defining Aggressive Behaviours

Often definitions of “occupational violence and aggression (OVA)” or “work-related violence” bundle all aggressive behaviours into one broad category of “occupational violence”. This makes it difficult to segment incident reporting data into meaningful and actionable categories.

It is helpful for the definitions used to include an actual definition as well as a list of examples to support incident reporting.

We recommend having definitions of “Occupational Violence and Aggression” / “Work-related Violence” and the three key elements of “verbal abuse”, “threats (and threatening behaviours)” and “physical assault”.

These four definitions can then underpin a straightforward framework for safety conversations, incident reporting and subsequent analysis.

We advise against using both “physical assault” and “verbal assault” as this can lead to confusion. We suggest “verbal abuse” rather than “verbal assault” or “verbal attack”. We also suggest “physical assault” rather than “physical abuse”.

Some elements for consideration in your four definitions:

Occupational Violence and Aggression

Here are two examples from Worksafe Victoria:

Work-related violence means incidents in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. It includes verbal abuse, threats and physical attack.”

Occupational violence and aggression is when a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in a situation related to their work.”

Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is when a person forcefully insults, criticises, or denounces someone else.”
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fifth ed.), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2016, retrieved March 16, 2018

Further points:

    • Verbal Abuse is a destructive form of communication intended to harm the other person.
    • Verbal abuse is usually characterised by anger and hostility.
    • Verbal abuse may be loud (eg. yelling) or delivered quietly.


Yelling; offensive remarks; slurs about gender / race / sexuality; name-calling; continuous criticism; swearing; offensive remarks regarding someone’s intelligence or body; humiliation in public or in private.

Threats and Threatening Behaviour

Threats and threatening behaviour is communication, delivered verbally, physically (eg. through intimidating actions or behaviours) or in writing (hard or soft copy), that causes a person to believe that a person(s), property and/or reputation, are in danger of being harmed.

Further points:

    • The person(s) being threatened might be the person to whom the threat is made, a 3rd party such as a colleague or family member, or even the person making the threat (eg. self-harm).
    • The threat may be actual or implied.
    • The carrying out of the threatened harm will be conditional on something being done or not done.
    • The threat may or may not cause the recipient to be fearful (though the element of fear may be required for legal interventions).
    • The ability or intent to carry out the threat is not a requirement for it to be deemed a threat (though the ability and/or intent to carry out the threat may to be required for legal interventions).


“If you don’t do what I’m asking, I will bash you”.
“If you don’t do it the way I want, then I will slap you.”
“I am going to hurt myself.” The unstated condition is “if you don’t leave / do something / stop doing something” then I am going to hurt myself.

Physical Assault

Physical attack means “a direct or indirect application of force by a person to the body of, or clothing or equipment worn by, another person, where that application creates a risk to health and safety”.
Department of Human Services (DHS). (2007). Preventing occupational violence in Victorian health services, a policy and framework resource kit, Victorian Government Department of Human Services, Melbourne Victoria.

The layman’s definition Holland Thomas uses for physical assault is “unwelcome physical contact”.

Further points:

    • The context in which the physical contact occurs will determine whether the physical contact is a physical assault.
    • Intent to carry out the physical assault is not a requirement for it to be deemed a physical assault (though the intent to carry out the physical assault may be required for legal interventions).
    • Consideration should be given to clarifying whether the physical assault has to make contact. That is, is throwing a punch a physical assault? Or does the punch have to make contact with the employee for it to be a physical assault? We suggest both are recorded as an incident involving physical assault. Even though the physical harm from the punch that did not make contact with the employee would presumably be less, the psychological harm could still be significant.
    • “Physical assault” and “physical attack” are often used interchangeably.


Slapping; kicking; punching; pinching; scratching; squeezing; biting; spitting; pulling hair; inappropriate touching; groping; hitting with an object; throwing an object that strikes the target; stabbing; shooting.

All of these examples can be of a non-sexual or a sexual nature. When incidents are of a sexual nature, the person completing the incident report should be able to indicate this on the incident report form.

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If you are looking for a more involved framework, you may like to consider elements of the definitions for types of aggression as provided in “Tool T1: Exposure to aggression risk calculator” from “Prevention and Management of Aggression in Health Services” (Edition 2. June 2017) by Worksafe Victoria being:

Minor verbal aggression:
Heated disagreement, raised voices.

Verbal aggression:
Abuse, swearing directed at specific staff.
Non-specific threat.

Threat intimidation:
Specific threat to harm.
Overtly physically aggressive.

Physical aggression:
Attack resulting in minor injury.
Pushing, grabbing, scratching, biting.

High aggression / Extreme threat:
Attack possibly resulting in serious injury.
Physical attack, including punching, kicking, etc.
Specific threat to kill.

Severe aggression:
Attack resulting in serious injury.
Severe physical attack, including repeated kicking, punching, etc

Extreme aggression:
Attack resulting in death.
Attack with weapons.


Improved definitions of occupational violence will support a straightforward framework for safety conversations, incident reporting and subsequent analysis at your workplace.

Please feel welcome to contact Holland Thomas to discuss.


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Travis Holland

Travis Holland
Managing Director
Holland Thomas
Travis Holland email address

Should you wish to discuss strategies to improve your staff’s safety in their work environment, please feel welcome to contact Holland Thomas.

Passionate about creating safer workplaces our goal is to enhance wellbeing for all concerned whilst also delivering improved operational and financial performance.

This blog draws on our years of experience delivering our M.A.B.™ Staff Safety Training (Contextualised Prevention and Management of Aggressive Behaviours) across Australia and the development of My Safety Buddy, our smartphone app and web portal based lone worker safety solution.

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