Sandy Says: Why OSHA Won’t Regulate the Causes of Workplace Violence

Oct. 10, 2011
We all can agree that workplace violence is a fairly widespread problem and murder is a leading cause of workplace fatalities, so why won’t OSHA regulate it?

Graciela Morales was sitting in her SUV in the parking lot of her workplace, Park-Ohio, a manufacturing plant on Denison Avenue in Cleveland, when her ex-boyfriend walked up to the car and shot her multiple times. Pedro Rodriguez took her employee badge, swiped it through the building’s security system to unlock the door and proceeded to hunt down and shoot her stepson, Eduardo Pupo.

It didn’t take police long to find Rodriquez, who had the gun with him. He pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated murder and a weapons charge and immediately was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in 33 years, at which point he’ll be 77 years old.

Murder is a leading cause of workplace fatalities. Often, the victims know their killers – it’s a former employee, a coworker, a spouse or a former boyfriend or girlfriend. For retail workers, the violence is committed during a robbery. For nurses and social workers, whose workplace experiences with violence sound more like prize fights than occupational hazards, patients and clients are the aggressors.

Staggering Statistics

More than 3,000 people died from workplace homicide between 2006 and 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and more than 15,000 nonfatal workplace injury cases was reported annually during this time.

OSHA has released a new directive that offers procedures for agency staff responding to workplace violence complaints or cases. The directive also establishes procedures for conducting inspections in industries such as late-night retail businesses and in health care and social service settings. While this is more than OSHA has done in the past to address workplace violence, it’s doesn’t come close to approaching the impact of a regulation.

My guess is that OSHA will never seek regulations related to workplace violence. The agency is caught between a rock and a hard place, as are employers. There is no PPE or protocol for situations involving workplace violence. OSHA can suggest that employers counsel employees what to in an emergency situation such as a person shooting a gun in the workplace, but that is reactive, not proactive. Sometimes you just don’t know what trigger will cause a person to resort to violence, so how can you prevent it?

Employers can lock doors, educate employees to identify unstable coworkers or clients, ban guns and knives from the workplace and install bullet-proof glass, but workers will continue to be the victims of violence at work. Violence often spills in from workers’ private lives or the private lives of their coworkers or patients, and OSHA can’t regulate the home.

Not PC to Interfere with Private Lives

We warn employees not to cut the grass in flip-flops and ask them to wear hearing protection when using power tools for a hobby, but it is completely inappropriate to counsel them to leave abusive home situations, pay child support or refrain from having affairs with coworkers (all things which have triggered workplace murders in recent years).

As a manager, I had to witness the anguish of an employee dealing with a violent spouse. She came into work with blackened eyes and cut lips, but unless she came to me and asked me for help, I couldn’t say or do much without violating her right to privacy.

She pretended that everything was fine, so all I could do was ask her if everything was all right and if there was anything I could do. I referred her to our employee assistance program, which offers counseling. But I couldn’t ask questions that would tell me what I needed to know: Was her husband a threat to anyone but her?

Sometimes when I write these columns, I have an answer or an opinion. But in the case of workplace violence, I’m stumped.

If anyone out there has suggestions, please share them online when this article is posted to our Web site. Until then, be careful and be safe.

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