Category Archives: safety

A Spike in Workplace Deaths

In case you missed it, more workers died from on-the-clock injuries in 2015 than in any of the six previous years, though the rate of such deaths has been falling, according to a New York Times report based on data released by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of deaths recorded by the BLS in 2015 is 4,836, and that’s the total number of fatal workplace injuries in 2015, the highest since 2008, when such injuries resulted in 5,214 deaths, the paper reports.

But, as the story notes,  “high as the total may seem, the rate of workplace deaths — as a share of every 100,000 full-time equivalent workers — fell slightly from 2014 and has fallen relatively steadily since 2006.”

Among the many breakdowns of the data — men made up 93 percent of all workplace deaths last year, for example — the story notes that older workers (65 and older) died at higher rates last year than their peers in any other age group:

With 650 deaths for those senior workers, 2015 was the second-worst year for the age group since the data was first collected in 1992. Only last year’s total, 684, was larger.

These are some scary statistics for older workers, but the silver lining is that hopefully they make a compelling argument for increased training and worker safety in the coming year for all ages of employees, especially the oldest ones.

 

New Safety Standard Coming?

Healthcare workers face substantially greater risks of being the victims of workplace violence than employees in other industries. The experience of Rose Parma offers a vivid example of the dangers they face. Parma, a registered nurse in California’s Central Valley, has had patients slap, spit on and kick her and even threaten her life, she tells The Atlantic. During one incident, a patient kicked her so hard in the pelvis that Parma (who was pregnant at the time) slammed into a glass wall and fell to the ground (her baby survived).

The trauma of that incident was compounded by her supervisor’s indifferent response, she said:

“The manager seemed so surprised and said ‘Has this never happened to you? Is this really the first time?’ As if it weren’t a big deal,” Parma says. The manager then told Parma she would see her the next day at work. “I literally thought I was going to die [during the attack], and they didn’t even offer me counseling.”

Employees at hospitals and other healthcare settings are five times more likely than workers in other industries to be physically assaulted in the workplace, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this year. A report from the American Nurses Association finds that one in four nurses has been physically attacked in the workplace in the last year. Workers in healthcare and social assistance were involved in 52 percent of workplace violence incidents in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The epidemic of violence may be at least partly attributable to staff cutbacks over the years at hospitals that have resulted in fewer nurses on hand to deal with potentially troublesome patients, including drug addicts seeking help in hospital emergency rooms, according to The Atlantic.

In its report, the GAO suggested that OSHA assess the need for rulemaking to address this hazard. With that in mind, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has just announced a “request for information” for a new federal safety standard that would lead to greater protections for healthcare workers. The agency has also scheduled a public meeting on January 10 to discuss strategies for preventing violence against healthcare workers.

What would a federal safety standard for healthcare workers look like? California offers a potential example. The state’s workplace-safety agency recently approved what could be the most-robust safety standard in the United States for the prevention of violence against healthcare workers. It would require hospitals and other healthcare employers to develop violence prevention protocols in consultation with their workers. The standard is being reviewed by the state’s office of Administrative Law and could take effect as early as this January.

Two major unions — the California Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union — say they hope the California standard will become a national model, NPR reports.

“California has now set the bar with the strongest workplace violence regulation in the nation,” said Bonnie Castillo, director of health and safety for the CNA/National Nurses United, in a statement.

However, complying with the new standard will be a serious challenge for the state’s healthcare employers, writes Barnes & Thornburgh employment attorney Evelina Shpolyansky in the National Law Review.

Among other things, Shpolyansky writes, the standard’s definition of workplace violence is “very broadly defined” and includes any threat of violence as well as the violence itself. The standard applies to violence perpetrated by “a wide array of people including visitors, patients, ex-employees, other employees, individuals who had a personal relationship with a worker and even non-facility workers.” The standard broadly defines “healthcare facilities,” which “leaves much room for confusion over what facilities will be covered.” California employers would not be liable for every act of violence against a worker, such as a mass shooting, but could be cited by Cal/OSHA for not following protocols, writes Shpolyansky.

” … The Cal/OSHA standard is by far the strictest occupational safety and health regulation in the country governing workplace violence for healthcare workers and, once approved, will set an extremely high bar for the federal OSHA standards …” she writes.

Regardless of whether or not a federal safety standard is enacted, however, the attacks suffered by Parma and countless other healthcare workers make it plain that something more must be done to ensure their safety.

Americans Much in Favor of Background Checks

Granted, the company announcing this research has some “skin in the game,” as we sometimes say around here, but this study — which 502005532 -- criminal backgroundwas explained to me in some detail at the recent SHRM16 conference in Washington — bears sharing.

It’s so counterintuitive to so much of what we’ve been hearing when it comes to the popularity, or lack thereof, of background screening, I thought it might pique some interest.

The study (registration required) was commissioned by Sterling Talent Solutions, the entity created from the recent acquisition by SterlingBackcheck of EmployeeScreenIQ. (Kelton Global conducted the research.)

And here’s the statistic that compels me to share: It finds 95 percent of the 1,077 Americans over the age of 18 polled think background checks should be mandatory to determine whether a person has a criminal past before he or she takes on the responsibilities of a job.

As Nick Fishman, the company’s communications vice president, explained to me, “we’ve all heard a lot about background checks, and how they are negatively perceived, and negatively affect job candidates [indeed, here’s just a sampling of such content we’ve posted on HREOnline and HRE Daily, along with guidelines and regulations employers now need to be aware of], but no one’s gone out and asked the general public what they actually think about them. Well, we did.”

For so long, it’s been assumed employers take the safety of their workplaces more seriously than employees, Fishman said. “Now we see employees care as much, if not more.”

The poll also found 81 percent of Americans believe feeling safe at all times is their right and the workplace is one of the top two locations where they expect to feel safe. What’s more, 68 percent indicated they are willing to undergo background checks themselves; in other words, it’s not just something they believe should be in place for others.

“For too long, the debate about background checks has failed to take into account how everyday Americans actually feel about the role background checks play in their daily lives — namely to keep them safe — and has instead focused on issues promoted by [governmental agencies and advocacy groups],” says Clare Hart, chief executive officer of Sterling. (Think ban-the-box legislation currently spreading through the country at city, county and state levels.) Hart continues:

“[This explains] why Americans depend on employers to look into the backgrounds and criminal histories of job candidates. Importantly, contrary to much of what’s been reported in the media, only 14 percent of Americans consider background checks to be an invasion of privacy.”

So what are you/we to do with this?

Obviously, background-check providers would love the door to open ever-wider to the need for their services. But there’s more to this, I think, yet another reminder that we don’t always know what’s in the hearts and minds of the people working for us, and we should not pretend to know without asking them.

(Employee-satisfaction-survey providers would no doubt have some thoughts on this as well.)

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Caught in the Drug Screen

There’s an interesting new story in the New York Times today about how employers are struggling to find a key demographic of the workforce: those who are able to pass a drug test.

From the NYT story:

All over the country, employers say they see a disturbing downside of tighter labor markets as they try to rebuild from the worst recession since the Depression: They are struggling to find workers who can pass a pre-employment drug test.

The hurdle, according to the story, “partly stems from the growing ubiquity of drug testing, at corporations with big human resources departments, in industries like trucking where testing is mandated by federal law for safety reasons, and increasingly at smaller companies.”

Data suggest employers’ difficulties “also reflect an increase in the use of drugs, especially marijuana — employers’ main gripe — and also heroin and other opioid drugs much in the news.”

Indeed, Quest Diagnostics, a national drug-testing service, documented an increase for a second consecutive year in the percentage of Americans who tested positive for illicit drugs — to 4.7 percent in 2014 from 4.3 percent in 2013. And 2013 was the first year in a decade to show an increase, the story notes.

But data on the scope of the problem is “sketchy,” the NYT notes, “because figures on job applicants who test positive for drugs miss the many people who simply skip tests they cannot pass.”

The story gets at an interesting question, but one that doesn’t necessarily get enough attention these days, likely due to all the other debates raging in the workplace: When does drug testing become more onerous than advantageous for an organization?

Safe and Secure, or Not So Sure?

The good news coming out of a recent CareerBuilder survey is that the overwhelming majority of employees (93 percent) feel their office is a safe, secure place to work.

A few other findings from the Chicago-headquartered employment website and HR software provider’s poll of 3,031 full-time, United States-based workers are less encouraging.

Some of these same employees, it seems, are less confident that their employers are adequately equipped to address specific threats in the workplace.

For example, 17 percent of those surveyed by CareerBuilder said they do not feel their workplaces are well-protected in case of a fire, flood or other disaster, and 26 percent don’t think their companies have an emergency plan in place should such events occur. Nineteen percent indicated their workplaces are poorly safeguarded from weather-related threats, and 26 percent don’t believe their organization has an emergency plan for responding to extremely severe weather.

In addition, 31 percent of respondents said they don’t feel their workplaces are well-protected from a physical threat posed by another person, and 41 percent said their company has made no provisions for handling such an attack.

This past February, I spoke with Michelle Colosimo, director of Black Swan Solutions, a Waukesha, Wis.-based provider of crisis management technology and services, about what employers can do to prepare workers for threats to their physical safety while on the job. More specifically, we talked about the importance of putting plans in place for an active shooter event in the workplace.

I sought Colosimo’s insight for an hreonline.com piece focusing on some of the tools and resources available to help employers equip employees to react should such an unthinkable scenario ever unfold in their office. (Incidentally, an expanded, more in-depth feature on this topic is set to run in our May print issue.)

HR leaders are faced with “a huge undertaking” in the event an active shooter descends on the workplace, said Colosimo at the time.

“Accounting for everyone is a big challenge. So, [HR] has to coordinate all of these things beforehand—What do you need to prepare for? And, what will you need to do when and if this does happen?”

Earlier this week, I reached out to Michelle for her take on the results of this CareerBuilder survey. She reiterated the need to have processes in place to potentially prevent an active shooter incident, and to provide employees with ways to anonymously report concerning behaviors or comments from another individual.

“If a report is made, the organization needs to have a threat assessment team in place to review each threat, and determine appropriate action needed to address the potential concern,” she says.

But, even the best, most comprehensive plan may not thwart an attacker, unfortunately.

“So, it’s critical that the organization train employees ahead of time on steps they need to take, as an individual, to protect themselves if an incident were to [take place],” she says.

Conducting realistic drills and active-shooter simulations and providing workers with practical tools and steps to follow also helps create “better muscle memory” in employees, she says, “so they take proper action when a crisis occurs.”

Remembering Katrina, 10 Years Later

It’s difficult to fathom that it’s been 10 years since Katrina made landfall and wreaked havoc on New Orleans and the surrounding region.

Katrina heading toward the coastline on August 28.
Katrina heading toward the coastline on Aug. 28, 2005.

I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded of the devasting storm delivered to the region. But just in case, here’s a brief excerpt from the August 30, 2005 edition of the New York Times

“Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast with devastating force at daybreak on Monday, sparing New Orleans the catastrophic hit that had been feared, but inundating parts of the city and heaping damage on neighboring Mississippi, where it killed dozens, ripped away roofs and left coastal roads impassable.

Officials said that, according to preliminary reports, there were at least 55 deaths, with 50 alone in Harrison County, Miss., which includes Gulfport and Biloxi. Emergency workers feared that they would find more dead among people who had been trapped in their homes and in collapsed buildings.

Jim Pollard, a spokesman for the Harrison County emergency operations center, said many of the dead were found in an apartment complex in Biloxi. Seven others were found in the Industrial Seaway.

Packing 145-mile-an-hour winds as it made landfall, the storm left more than a million people in three states without power and submerged highways even hundreds of miles from its center.The storm was potent enough to rank as one of the most punishing hurricanes ever to hit the United States. Insurance experts said that damage could exceed $9 billion, which would make it one of the costliest storms on record.”

As we all know, the toll turned out to be a lot worse than those (and other) initial estimates—and, as Gary Rivlin makes clear in his new book Katrina: After the Flood (the release of which was obviously timed for the 10th anniversary), the impact, in many ways, continues to be felt today.

Of course, as far as employers are concerned, Katrina’s 10th anniversary raises the ever-important question, “From an employee and operational standpoint, are we better prepared to respond when a natural disaster strikes than we were 10 years ago?”

I’m not really prepared to address that question in this particular post, but figured it might be as good a time as any to dust off an article we posted in 2011 on HREOnline titled “Being Prepared When Disaster Strikes.” Written by Ann D. Clark, CEO and founder of ACI Specialty Benefits, an EAP and leading provider of student-assistance programs, and wellness, concierge and work/life services, the piece offers employers a road map for navigating natural disasters such as Katrina.

“Too many businesses wait until crisis strikes to act,” Clark wrote in 2011. So as Erika approaches Florida and the nation and world remembers Katrina 10 years later, here are a few of the pointers featured in Clark’s article.

“The Vulnerability Audit”

Before creating a response plan, first take a vulnerability audit or risk assessment. Remember, the workplace can be directly affected through actual physical damage in the event of an earthquake, tornado, tsunami or other natural disaster, and can also be adversely affected by employees having family members or friends impacted by a traumatic event … .

Creating a Plan

An effective plan is one that is well-rounded and capable of responding to any incident, regardless of size, scope or complexity. Make sure the plan addresses up-to-date evacuation procedures, property-damage protection, systems back-up, communication and business contingency.

HR professionals should also consider consulting with first responders and employee-program-assistance providers to ensure the plan effectively covers major areas of concern.

When preparing for an immediate threat such as a natural disaster, safety comes first.

Disaster Training and Communication

The next major step in disaster preparedness is adequate training and communication to ensure the workforce has all the tools necessary to respond and recover in times of crisis.

HR professionals should start by having a meeting focused on disaster preparedness where all of the important information can be disseminated to the entire workforce. At these meetings, topics such as where the emergency supplies are located, where the office safe area can be found and how to respond to each kind of respective emergency can be covered.

Preparedness in Action

In Florida, companies are often threatened by hurricanes and have learned first-hand how preparedness works.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House learned the communication plan was one of the most important pieces of its disaster planning when Hurricane Katrina struck. Without phone lines, the management team was able to locate all but three of 370 employees in affected areas within a few days using text messaging.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the company’s disaster plan also includes pre-hurricane-season tree-trimming around restaurants, an outline of items for each store’s disaster-supply kit and step-by-step instructions on ways to secure the building and food supplies before evacuations.

Turning to Professional Resources

A major part of disaster preparedness is knowing where to turn for resources and support. One of those crisis-response resources is the employer’s employee-assistance program.

When the tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, there were a variety of U.S.-based companies with employees and family members in Japan who needed to be evacuated immediately. Some of ACI Specialty Benefits’ clients turned to the EAP resources for prompt support in ensuring these employees and family members were taken care of. …

In critical situations, EAP services can be invaluable in providing prompt and professional support to address a wide range of business and personal needs, including the provision of on-site counseling support to management and staff.

Advice well worth remembering, I would think, especially as the coast of Florida braces for Tropical Storm Erika, which could possibly make landfall as a hurricane early next week.

Restraining Orders as Legal Arsenal

When an email came my way recently, touting yet another approach to keeping employers safe from liability — restraining orders — I restraining order -- 473612428nearly discarded it, thinking it was surely common knowledge among HR leaders.

But something about the wording, and the invitation to interview a Los Angeles judge who thinks employers and their HR departments must not be privy to this technique, compelled me to look further. So I called him.

Herbert Dodell, Judge Pro Tempore for the Los Angeles Superior Court, thinks if employers really understood how much legal protection they’d be cloaking themselves in by filing restraining orders against potentially dangerous employees and ex-employees, more would be taking this approach. As it is, “maybe 5 percent to 10 percent are doing it today, tops,” he says. He goes on:

“Think about it, if there is an unruly employee or someone who is a credible threat of violence, the fact that [an employer] got a restraining order allows [that employer] to argue it did the prudent thing when confronted with a situation.

“If the employer doesn’t do it, and that employee shoots up the place, that employer will be faced with an argument that it didn’t do anything to protect the other employees or the work environment. In other words, it had notice and was negligent about doing something about it. It is no guarantee, but allows for an argument on liability issues.

“With the proliferation of lawsuits against employers for wrongful termination, discrimination, retaliation, you name it — all seeking damages, large and small — employers should be looking for ways to defend their actions and minimize damage claims. Restraining orders [can be] valuable tools in that regard.”

Dodell has a pretty good frame of reference for this. Not only has he heard hundreds of retraining-order cases in his judge’s robe, he also has experience as a transactional and trial lawyer, and mediator and arbitrator. So he’s represented people on both sides of these cases and decides them now, too.

Granted, he says, it won’t stop the violence (although it could deter it). “If someone has it in his or her mind to shoot up the place, he or she will shoot up the place,” he says. While such incidents were rare decades ago, he adds, they have been on the rise in recent years — perhaps the most recent being the February shooting at a Moorestown, N.J. security company that left one man dead and another injured.

Hard to say just how much they’re going up. Here‘s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s word on that. But as a legal record of steps an employer takes, and as proof in a court of law that “the employers had some concerns and took action, that employer would be far more protected from liability than most are,” says Dodell.

“I’m convinced HR people and employers don’t understand how this works or far more would be doing it,” he says. (He’s not even sure enough risk managers know how effective and simple this is.)

Filing a restraining order, he says, is not a difficult procedure — “basically, a six-page form [that entails mostly] checking the boxes.” Judges like himself “don’t even come out of chambers for temporary restraining orders; then you have a hearing in 21 days; then, if it’s issued, it’s good for three years.”

The thing to remember, he says, is you don’t have to be right about a perceived threat. You simply need to present your concerns to the court in the form of a fact pattern — “this is what happened and this is what we think might happen.” If the judge concurs, you are, in essence, right, and you — and possibly your employees (if the order does serve to dissuade the violent behavior) are protected for three years.

These documents are not complicated and they’re not expensive, says Dodell, and they make a whole lot more sense than what he’s sadly seen far more often, “where companies simply transfer unruly employees to other departments” to the detriment — and sometimes injuries or murders — of other employees. What’s more, he adds:

“The terms of the restraining order can be ‘manuscripted’ for the court to approve.  I often tailor the relief to the need. In wrongful termination cases, it is invaluable to have a finding made by a judicial officer that there was a reason for the termination or conduct by the employer to refute arguments of discrimination, etc.

“In cases where an employee or former employee disrupts the operation of the business or causes damages such as a shooting at the place of business, the obtaining of a restraining order, before something happens, shows due diligence and goes directly against allegations of negligence. Insurance companies should love it when there is a restraining order in place.  It can then be shown that a neutral judicial officer found a sufficient basis, by the applicable standard, that the employee or former employee was unstable and that the employer sought to do something about it.”

So there you have it: When in doubt (or concern), file those restraining orders.

I don’t usually take over someone else’s soapbox here, but thought I’d err on the side of safety.

Second Stand-Down for Safety is Set

Citing even more compelling reasons this year than last for getting the construction-safety message out, the U.S. Department of 465986031 -- constructionLabor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced it will be holding its second annual National Fall Safety Stand-Down in May.

“With the economy on the rebound and housing starts on the rise, now is the time for all of us to renew our commitment to sending workers home safe every night,” says Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.

According to OSHA, falls are still the leading cause of death in the construction industry, as hundreds of workers die each year and thousands more suffer catastrophic, debilitating injuries. Yet, lack of proper fall protection remains the most frequently cited violation by the agency.

Building on last year’s widespread participation in the one-week event, which Staff Writer Mark McGraw wrote about in this blog post,  OSHA decided to expand it from one week to two weeks, now scheduled for May 4 through 15. During that time, the agency notes in its release, “employers and workers will pause during their workday for topic talks, demonstrations and training on how to use safety harnesses, guard rails and other means to protect workers from falls.” It adds:

“Underscoring the importance of this effort, industry and business leaders, including universities, labor organizations, and community and faith-based groups, have already begun scheduling 2015 stand-downs in all 50 states and around the world.”

The stand-down initiative is part of OSHA’s fall prevention campaign, launched three years ago with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH’s National Occupational Research Agenda and The Center for Construction Research and Training, according to the announcement on Feb. 18. It cites numerous other partners for this year’s event as well.

“Given the tremendous response we’ve received, it’s clear that this is an important issue to a great number of people across this nation,” says Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels.

In the added words of NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, “no child should lose a parent, no wife should lose a husband and no worker should lose [his or her] life in a preventable fall.”

I plan to follow this and perhaps report on this year’s participation to get an idea of just how committed the business community is to improving safety, and reducing these injuries and deaths. Stay tuned.

Marijuana Acceptance Marches On

It’s still highly unlikely that any employer will ever have to allow an employee to work while he or she is stoned, whether there’s a safety 146967521 - smoking dopeor security risk or not, but the chips seem to keep falling away from those sturdy walls that made marijuana unacceptable, illegal and disallowed for years.

The latest indication that pot is going mainstream comes in this Illinois Appellate Court ruling (found on the Canna Law Blog site) affirming a Circuit Court’s ruling that just because a worker was fired for violating his employer’s drug-and-alcohol-free workplace policy doesn’t mean he can’t collect unemployment benefits.

Seems this maintenance worker for the Jefferson County Housing Authority fessed up to his employer — just before a random mandatory drug screening — that he might not pass because he had smoked pot several weeks earlier while on vacation. He was fired, even though his tests results were negative, and was turned down for unemployment benefits because of the nature of his termination.

The Housing Authority’s policy prohibits employees from being under the influence of any controlled substance “while in the course of employment.” Both the Circuit Court and Appellate Court agreed “course of employment” was interpreted too broadly by the Illinois Department of Employment Security to include off-duty hours.

“Among the reasons the Circuit Court found the agency’s interpretation unreasonable,” the blog states, “was the fact that marijuana is now legal in some states and the fact that it unreasonably restricted off-duty time while serving no legitimate public purpose.”

Yes, indeed, marijuana is absolutely now legal in some states, as this news analysis and this blog post by me indicate. But it’s more than going legal, as I also indicate. It’s becoming big business. Make that a huge industry.

Just this month, news releases came across my screen announcing a Cannabis Career Institute opening in San Diego as well as three others in Florida, Illinois and Nevada, all designed, as the releases state, to teach “ganjapreneurs how to succeed in the marijuana industry as the green rush continues.”

Attorneys and experts I’ve talked to assure me employers will always have the legal right — and responsibility — to keep their workplaces safe and drug-free. I just wonder how all this nudging from the “cannabusiness” community and the courts is going to impact how those employers sleep at night.

 

New Year Brings New Reporting Requirements

IND_023Throughout this past year, we’ve told you about some of the steps the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been taking in its effort to improve workplace safety.

In June, for example, OSHA’s National Fall Safety Stand-Down saw thousands of employers join the organization in taking a timeout during the work day to focus on outlining the dangers of falls and improving fall-prevention efforts.

More recently, OSHA wrote a letter reminding some of the largest U.S. retailers of the potential hazards that accompany Black Friday sales events, and offering recommendations for keeping employees and consumers safe during the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy.

The organization’s latest step does more than offer recommendations, and takes effect in a matter of days.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, employers under the federal jurisdiction of OSHA will be required to report all work-related fatalities to the organization within eight hours, and must report all inpatient hospitalizations, amputations and losses of an eye within 24 hours of learning of the incident. In the past, employers were obligated to inform OSHA of all workplace fatalities and instances in which three or more workers were hospitalized as a result of the same event.

As Assistant Secretary of Labor and OSHA head David Michaels notes in a recent blog, employers will have three reporting options: calling or visiting their nearest area office during normal business hours, calling the 24-hour OSHA hotline at 800.321.OSHA or reporting online.

OSHA has also made available a handful of resources designed to detail the new requirements and what they mean for employers, including a dedicated web page, a list of FAQs, a fact sheet and a YouTube video.

“It is important to remember that these updated reporting requirements are not simply paperwork, but have a life-saving purpose,” wrote Michaels in the aforementioned blog. “They will help employers and workers prevent future injuries by identifying and eliminating the most serious workplace hazards.”