Category Archives: workplace violence

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.

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.

A Treatment for Terror?

Like most, I was sickened to read the news reports Wednesday morning about another terrorist attack, this time on those working in the Paris office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

450968335As you no doubt know, the horrific act took the lives of 12 people—including the publication’s editor and four of the magazine’s cartoonists—and set in motion a manhunt for those responsible, which reportedly includes two brothers who were already under police surveillance.

Over the years, HRE has published its share of stories on the devastating toll terrorist acts can have on the workplace—and the steps employers might want to consider taking to minimize risks and assist employees and the victims’ families in the aftermath. But while most of those pieces have addressed the impact of such attacks on those workplaces where the incidences occurred, there’s little question (at least to me) that the impact very often extends well beyond the organization itself.  (For many of us, 9/11 is etched in our minds and will remain there until we take our final breath, whether we were in New York, Somerset County or Washington—or not.)

I’m not really sure if the timing here is a coincidence or not (since it doesn’t mention the Paris attack), but yesterday a new Tel Aviv University study linking terrorism to incidences of job burnout over time was posted online.

In the study—led by professors Sharon Toker of TAU’s Faculty of Management, in collaboration with Dr. Gregory A. Laurence of the University of Michigan and Dr. Yitzhak Fried of Syracuse University and Texas Tech University—a random sample of 670 Israeli employees underwent routine checkups at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center in 2003 and 2004, completing questionnaires to assess the incidences of insomnia, fear of terror, fear for personal safety, tension experienced in public places, level of workplace support and signs of job burnout. Employees were then followed from 2003 to 2009, completing two additional questionnaires over that period. (The study is being published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.)

Toker reports …

“We found that the higher your levels of fear of terror at baseline, the higher your risk of developing insomnia—and those who were more likely to develop insomnia were also most likely to experience job burnout several years later. Burnout is a direct outcome of depleted resources, so those who consistently don’t get enough sleep report job burnout.”

Of course, Toker explains, managers have an important role to play in promoting interventions for healthy sleep habits, initiating retreats and launching employee-assistance programs. But the research he and his colleagues conducted suggests that their best course of action might very well be to create “a workplace environment that is conducive to a strong social support network … .”

Why? Because, in their study, the researchers found that those who reported support from their colleagues—and not their managers—were less likely to experience insomnia and the inevitable burnout that comes with it than those who didn’t.

In a more perfect world, we wouldn’t have to worry about terrorist acts like those that played out in Paris this week. But as we all know, we don’t live in a perfect—so, for now anyway, I guess we’re confined to look to studies like Toker’s to find more effective ways to minimize their impact.

HR Manager Killed by Workers in India

Sad — and scary –news from India, where a group of workers attacked and killed a 45-year-old HR manager at Allied Nippon, a joint Indo-Japanese venture that manufactures brakes and brake shoes for cars, according to the Times of India.

Joginder Singh died of multiple head and chest injuries about a day after workers suddenly attacked him and other managers with iron bars in protest of staff firings, according to AFP.

Nine of the factory workers in  Ghaziabad have been arrested and charged with murder. Another 27 workers were identified as being part of the brawl and 300 are so far unidentified.

Two company officials remain in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.

As HRE wrote earlier this year, HR seems to be a more frequent target of violence by workers — and not just overseas. That’s because HR leaders are often the messengers of bad news.

William J. Daly, senior vice president of London-based risk consultant Control Risks, was quoted in the story as saying that HR leaders can be hurt by the tendency of senior leaders bringing them up on stage to announce bad news and then leaving them on-site to deal with the repercussions.

“Traditionally, HR [leaders] have thought they were part of the solution and trying to help people but are now realizing that sometimes, during a difficult situation, there is no positive spin on the fact that jobs are being lost or some action should be taken against employees.”

… 

 Daly says [scaling back the HR presence is] not the answer because communication from HR is too vital during those critical times and remains just as important to many laid-off workers after the fact.

 The best they can do, he says, is to handle it like any other security risk — with preparation. Identify workers who may pose a security threat and figure out how to handle violence if it happens.

 “You need to be aware of your surroundings,” Daly says. “This is your job, you need to go and do it, but you need to go in there with eyes open. If there are any threats or issues that come up, know how you’re going to deal with them. Have a plan.”

In this case, police said the company had no warning violence was about to explode.

The factory’s HR vice president Mahendra Chowdhary told the media the attack by workers “was premediated and unprovoked. Workers attacked and chased the human resources staff and those on the board of directors.”

As Jobs Decline, So Do Workplace Fatalities

Some encouraging news from the Department of Labor yesterday: Preliminary data by the agency revealed a double-digit decline in workplace fatalities in 2009.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “fatal work injuries” in the U.S. fell 17 percent in 2009—or 3.3 per 100,000 workers, down from a final rate of 3.7 in 2008 (though the agency adds that the counts are likely to increase with the release of final numbers in April 2011). 

The 2009 preliminary data follows two years of more modest single-digit declines.

The improvement was visible in most sectors and categories. Even workplace suicides, which had been on the rise, showed some improvement, down 10 percent in 2009 from its high of 263 in 2008. (Look for a story on this topic in HRE in the fall.) Workplace homicides, meanwhile, declined just 1 percent.

While the preliminary data is heartening, however, it’s still premature to say workplaces are becoming significantly safer places. As the BLS approporiately points out in its press release, the economy—and the loss of 4.7 million jobs in 2009—clearly played a “major role” in the betters numbers.

 So how big a role is a “major role?” I’ll leave it to others to speculate?

No Way to Spot Killers in the Workplace

[UPDATE: Since Kris Frasch posted this item below, HREOnline (TM) did decide to write about the beer-distributor-shooting incident — focusing on the importance of compassion in termination/layoff discussions and the need for zero-tolerance policies for discrimination. To see that piece, click on the link above.] 

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We purposely did not follow last week’s beer-distributor-shooting tragedy near Hartford, Conn., that left nine dead, including the disgruntled gunman.  We talked about it the next day, and at our more recent news meeting, but determined — rightly, I think — that there was nothing much we could add to all the workplace-violence stories we’d followed in the past. It would be the same list of precautionary steps HR should take when laying off or terminating (or in this latest case, even reprimanding) employees. It’d be the same list of states where guns are prohibted on worksites, and where they’re not. It’d be the same list of behaviors and character changes that should set off red flags for HR and managers that someone’s about to blow. In the end, it’d be a classic case of SOS — same old story.

But this blog posting on Workplace Violence News of an article by Philadelphia Inquirer legal columnist Chris Mondics really caught my eye this morning. I’m not sure I’ve read anything — at least not lately — that spells out this clearly the futility of thinking you can really spot these workplace powderkegs before they explode. As Mondics puts it, “Identifying the one-in-a-million person on the verge of committing mass murder is akin to finding a needle in a haystack.”

Indeed, the Connecticut killer, it turns out, had been viewed by some of his acquaintances and co-workers as a “terrific guy,” he writes. Hardly the silent, brooding recluse most of the precautionary literature warns against.

This has to be so incredibly difficult for employers — especially HR professionals, trained and encouraged to remain calm, compassionate and professional when delivering bad news, yet accutely aware that what they’re delivering could set off a killer. How do you straddle professionalism and possible paranoia at the same time?

Especially, as Mondics indicates, when protective measures don’t really protect much at all?