Don’t feel safe at work? Here’s what to do.

It is every employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe working environment for their employees – but what happens when a company or organization fails to provide this minimum level of protection and you don’t feel safe at work? When threatening factors find their way into your workday, know how to be prepared and what action is necessary to take to ensure the safety of yourself and others.

When Your Work Puts You into Dangerous Situations

A few years ago when I was working in downtown San Francisco, I went to work every day in what many would consider a very unnerving environment. With a growing inequality between the city’s rich and poor, tension between the San Francisco’s homeless population, many of whom suffer from mental health issues, and the yuppie tech/start-up scene was (and still is) at an all-time high. Needless to say, this dynamic threatened my sense of safety in my work life on multiple occasions.

My office was just on the outskirts of the financial district, in an area which was considered ‘safe enough’ in the daytime but ‘better to avoid’ in the evenings. After 5 or 6 pm each day, the business vibe vanished as the employed workforce went home and a rougher crowd began to roam the streets. I was warned by female coworkers to always leave the office with someone else if I had to leave late. With just a few short blocks to the subway station, I often left alone, at the end of a normal workday.


One day upon leaving the office, I was promptly followed and attacked by a woman on the street.

She yelled sexist slurs at me while proceeding to pull my hair from behind, shaking my head violently in the process. Luckily I was able to escape the situation by calling for help (there were plenty of people around) and ducking into a convenience store.

Customers in the store protected me by keeping her out and telling her to leave me alone. After a few minutes, she disappeared. I was lucky that it was still daylight on a busy, main street. If I would have been alone in a dark alley with this woman, things could have ended much differently.

A Model of Situational Awareness: Cooper’s Colors

After this incident, my brother told me about Cooper’s Colors, a color coding system of situational awareness used by police and marines to maintain alertness in potentially threatening situations. By outlining four different levels of awareness,  the system can help ordinary people to recognize when they are aware of potential threats – and when they’re not – for example when you are playing a cell phone game while listening to music on your headphones while riding the subway. This is also known as the white zone.

When you are in the white zone- you are totally unaware of your surroundings.

You assume that if something bad happens, it will happen to someone else, not to you. It is recommended by experts that you should only be in this state of awareness while you are sleeping. Yet many of us are in this state all the time.

The awareness you have for your environment increases with each next level, from yellow to orange to red, with red being the most extreme state characterized by an adrenaline rush, the activated fight or flight mechanism, and possibly tunnel vision. In the red stage, you are not only able to identify a potential threat but also the target in case self-defense mechanisms would be necessary. If the situation does it fact become dangerous, and you are in state red, you should be well prepared to react appropriately. However, it is recommended to strive to be in the yellow state at all times – cautious and aware but not on serious alert or paranoid (unless there actually is a threat nearby).

When the Threat is at Your Workplace

Other times when we don’t feel safe, it’s because of factors in the workplace itself. When this happens, here is a list of measures you can take to protect yourself and act appropriately to resolve the situation.

#1 Common Sense, Awareness, Preparedness

As mentioned above, with a little awareness and smart thinking, we can learn which situations are safe and which are better to avoid. Think in advance about how you would react in the case of a particularly dangerous situation or emergency.  For any fears that you have, run through scenario planning: ‘If this happens… then I’ll do…” Train yourself to be prepared in the case of a real threat and of course maintain an appropriate level of alertness. Steps can be taken to be more prepared when faced with danger.

For example, if you feel scared to walk in the parking garage after work, buying a can of pepper spray or knowing how to use your keys as a weapon could prevent you from getting hurt one day.


#2 Determine the Cause

If you are not feeling safe at work, the first important thing to do is to determine the cause of your unease. Is it your physical environment, such as an overly cluttered floor space, exposed electrical wires, or a mold problem? Factors such as these are often easier to fix if brought to management’s attention immediately.  Is it an aggressive coworker, threatening customer, or bullying boss? Perhaps it is not a person, but a particular behavior that you find threatening in others, or a term that’s being used inappropriately. Is it a combination of factors? Whatever is causing you to feel unsafe in the workplace, try to define it clearly.

#3 Keep a Record

Keep a written log of events and situations which make you feel unsafe. Note down all relevant details that might be important later when you report the incident. For example, if you are being harassed by a fellow employee, write down when, where, and how often the harassment occurs, the name and department of the other employee, etc. Write down words spoken and any action taken to harm or alarm you.

#4 Inform Management

Anytime you feel threatened at work, you should not keep your feelings a secret! As soon as possible, bring up the situation with your supervisor or boss. If they do not take your complaint seriously, or if they are the cause of your unease, bring the issues to the Human Resources department instead. Discuss possible solutions and a timeline to implement changes that will improve your sense of security in the workplace.

If your manager or HR leaders are not taking your complaints seriously, they may not have your best interest at heart and in such cases, it may be advisable to consider working somewhere else.

#5 Escalation

If an employer is failing to correct and address workplace safety hazards or worse, if the organization is knowingly overlooking potentially dangerous situations or actively putting their employees in harm’s way, it may be appropriate to escalate the situation by getting the appropriate authorities involved. In most developed countries, a department of the government exists to ensure compliance with regulatory workplace safety laws. In the United States, you can contact the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Act division.

Additional Measures

There is more than one way to resolve a threat in the workplace. Speak to coworkers to find out if any are in the same situation. Once you’ve left an organization, leave a public review online on a website such as Glassdoor listing any safety issues that went unaddressed by the employer. Get advice and counsel from a Support Hotline made specifically for issues such as sexual harassment, or workplace bullying. Ask for additional training to use the dangerous machinery required in your position, lights for the parking lot, or to change an uncomfortable office space arrangement.

What safety issues have you faced in the workplace? What did you do to address them? I’m curious to hear about your experiences below! Until then, stay safe everyone!