Violence Prevention: Part Two

Violence Prevention: Part Two

Sitting around a table in November conjures up all sorts of idyllic images of what a “perfect” Thanksgiving is expected to look, feel, and smell like, with faces of people all happy and loving one another in perfect harmony.

You went there, didn’t you?

The picture—you have it in your head right now, the one of television and print ads, the perfect one.

It’s the old Norman Rockwell painting…

Does that look like your reality or is it fiction?

The picture I conjured up in my head looks like the fictional one; the idyllic, perfect one.

The “real” one, however, looks more like the Peanuts Thanksgiving doesn’t it?

You know Charles Schulz and the Peanuts Thanksgiving, the one where Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty, Franklin, Snoopy, and Linus, try to create their own Thanksgiving using the skills of little kids.

The table is a ping pong table, the chairs are a collection of whatever they could find from the garage, and the meal of buttered toast, popcorn, pretzels, jelly beans & ice cream, reflective of what they were capable of pulling together. It was not idyllic, it was not “traditional”, and it was perfectly imperfect, like reality.

Traditional “perfection” of what is at and around the table continues to pressure us during holidays, other life celebrations, and also in our work as safety professionals. There’s a prescribed notion of what is “in” and what is “out” and those things are often narrowly defined.

In the first blog of this series regarding workplace violence, I promised to address whether or not workplace violence has a seat at the traditional safety table and if so, where it sits and if it’s welcome.

Let’s talk about that traditional table first, because that’s as easy as conjuring up images of the perfect Thanksgiving table, all decked out with traditional provisions of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberries.

Our traditional safety table is set with personal protective equipment, lock-out/tag-out procedures, safe needle devices, machine guards, confined space rescue equipment, Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), fire extinguishers, and emergency response plans, among myriad other traditional safety things.

Then along comes workplace violence and people get uncomfortable. Kind of like how Peppermint Patty freaked out on Charlie Brown because there wasn’t turkey, only toast and jelly beans, which didn’t fit the tradition.

I was at a conference in Boston this fall, speaking on this subject of workplace violence and where it fits in the practice of workplace safety. Prior to speaking, I was inviting people to my session and often was met with passivity. “Oh, that’s not my role, that’s our security department”, or “That’s not my job, that’s HR’s work,” or “That’s a tough subject.”

The people who attended my session, however, had a different point of view. They told stories of workplace violence broadly, spanning fear and intimidation between colleagues, name calling, bullying, sexual assault, rifle hunting seasons and the challenge of understanding who is a threat when people are carrying weapons and who is not, to the story of a security guard shot in the line of work. They were ready to hear where workplace violence sits at the traditional safety table, welcoming the proverbial jelly bean and pretzel.

So, here’s what I said...

Addressing workplace violence in all its forms is not new to our practice of workplace safety. It’s not a “trending” or “flash-in-the-pan” subject. I will acknowledge, however, that violence appears to be more pervasive than it’s ever been, and say that we cannot turn a blind eye to it in our work of sending people home the same way they arrived.

Twenty years ago, when I first started my job as an investigator with OSHA, I was asked to be on a special task force. The focus of the task force was the long-term care industry, because of its high rates of musculoskeletal injuries from lifting and transferring residents, laundry, and food goods. We started with a regional education series to bring awareness and offer prevention strategies. Then, we began targeted inspection and enforcement activity. Each inspection included collecting injury and illness data for each location from the previous three years.

We found what we expected; high rates of injuries from lifting and handling.

And, there was a surprise.

High injury rates from workplace violence. Often, incidents were related as resident-to-employee, from kicking, punching, hair pulling, pushing, and assault. Yet, sometimes it was between employees or domestic partners of employees, bringing incidents of violence to the workplace. We couldn’t ignore the trends or the rates, and reached out to our workplace violence coordinator to help offer prevention strategies to the employers.

And, we wrote citations. Yes, citations regarding workplace violence. Our mandate was to find hazards and cite them. That was our job. No different than noting a machine guard deficit.

Was a workplace violence citation a stretch and did we have to appeal to the attorney general’s office to figure out how to substantiate citations? No.

How did we do it?

We used the equivalent of the General Duty Clause. I was working in a state-plan OSHA state where the federal General Duty Clause was replaced by a similar state statute: “Employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”

The key words? Recognized Hazards.

Recognized by way of documented injuries; recognized by way of risk associated with work common to the industry; recognized by way of prevention methods available.

Using the General Duty clause or a state equivalent to cite workplace violence hazards wasn’t unique then and isn’t unique now. In fact, many states use their own version of federal I2P2 (general safety program suggestion) to enforce workplace violence hazards, while other states have adopted laws specific to the hazard of workplace violence.

OSHA estimates that 2 million workers are affected by violence annually; 700 people are killed by homicidal violence while at work each year. And, homicide is one of the four most-frequent work-related fatalities.

So, while some of us in the practice of safety may prefer to do like those I encountered in Boston and point a finger at another responsible department or discipline, that’s simply not appropriate.

Our work is to ensure—so far as possible—safe and healthy working conditions. As safety professionals, that means partnering with our co-horts from security, HR departments, department heads, and supervisors, to first show that workplace violence prevention isn’t a nice-to-have, big idea to get to someday, or in response to a tragedy, but rather a legal mandate that has a place at the traditional safety table.

And we must lead the effort.

In the last installment of this blog series I will offer ideas and best practices to facilitate workplace violence prevention in your existing safety program, discuss training options, and help identify where prevention measures are best placed.

If you’re wondering how you’ll convince your stakeholders and decision makers to support your work in this area, lean into legal precident and statistics as I’ve laid out here, and gather data from your own work environment. Facts, after all, are difficult to dispute.

You can also try what Charlie Brown’s friend Linus did when Peppermint Patty was freaking out about all the non-traditional items upsetting her notion of the holiday world. Linus cited a version of the blessing used at the first Thanksgiving which he says was to be thankful for home, food, safety and the opportunity to create a new world of freedom and justice.

That works for me. How about you? Our work to provide safety and justice for others is what gets me out of bed everyday to do this work, and I bet you feel the same.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for the work you do each day.

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