BACKGROUND: Violence in the workplace is an ill-defined and underreported concern for health care workers. The objectives of this study were to examine perceived levels of violence in the emergency department, to obtain health care workers' definitions of violence, to determine the effect of violence on health care workers and to determine coping mechanisms and potential preventive strategies. METHODS: A retrospective written survey of all 163 emergency department employees working in 1996 at an urban inner-city tertiary care centre in Vancouver. The survey elicited demographic information, personal definition of violence, severity of violence, degree of stress as a result of violence and estimate of the number of encounters with violence in the workplace in 1996. The authors examined the effects of violence on job performance and job satisfaction, and reviewed coping and potential preventive strategies. RESULTS: Of the 163 staff, 106 (65%) completed the survey. A total of 68% (70/103) reported an increased frequency of violence over time, and 60% (64/106) reported an increased severity. Most of the respondents felt that violence included witnessing verbal abuse (76%) and witnessing physical threats or assaults (86%). Sixty respondents (57%) were physically assaulted in 1996. Overall, 51 respondents (48%) reported impaired job performance for the rest of the shift or the rest of the week after an incident of violence. Seventy-seven respondents (73%) were afraid of patients as a result of violence, almost half (49%) hid their identities from patients, and 78 (74%) had reduced job satisfaction. Over one-fourth of the respondents (27/101) took days off because of violence. Of the 18 respondents no longer working in the emergency department, 12 (67%) reported that they had left the job at least partly owing to violence. Twenty-four-hour security and a workshop on violence prevention strategies were felt to be the most useful potential interventions. Physical exercise, sleep and the company of family and friends were the most frequent coping strategies. INTERPRETATION: Violence in the emergency department is frequent and has a substantial effect on staff well-being and job satisfaction.