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Workplace Violence: OSHA Steps Up Enforcement Efforts

If you thought OSHA is interested only in injuries caused by dangerous equipment, hazardous materials, and unsafe practices, think again. OSHA will now also be focusing on injuries caused by dangerous people.

On September 8, 2011, OSHA issued its first written directive to OSHA investigators on how and when to inspect workplaces and conduct investigations for workplace violence. While OSHA recognizes that certain industries are more vulnerable to workplace violence than others, the new OSHA directive is not limited to the workplaces most prone to violence. The directive applies to all workplaces. And OSHA has already fined employers for incidents of workplace violence, with more aggressive enforcement action by OSHA on its way.

OSHA defines “workplace violence” as “violent acts directed toward persons at work or on duty.” According to OSHA, this definition is much broader than just physical assault, threats of physical violence, physical injury, and homicide. It also includes verbal abuse, harassment, intimidation, bullying, horseplay resulting in injury, and other threatening disruptive behavior.

OSHA expects employers, managers and supervisors to take steps to prevent workplace violence. It has also identified four types of violence of which employers need to be aware:

  1. Type 1 (“criminal intentsituations) involves violent acts against a current employee: (a) by a non-employee who enters the workplace to commit a robbery or other crime; or (b) by a current or former employee who enters the workplace with the intent to commit a crime.
  2. Type 2 (“violence by customer/client/patients”) involves violence against a current employee by a non-employee who receives a service from the employee (that is, violence by a customer, client, patient, student, or inmate).
  3. Type 3 (“coworker violence”) involves violence against a current employee by another employee or by a former employee.
  4. Type 4 (“personal violence”) involves violence against one or more employees by a non-employee who has a personal relationship with an employee (sometimes referred to as “domestic violence in the workplace”).

Employers should take steps to prevent workplace violence and to avoid the possibility of OSHA fines and penalties. The first step recommended by OSHA is for an employer to determine its own risk profile by evaluating its past incidents of all types of workplace violence. The second step is to develop a written, comprehensive workplace violence prevention program. Other steps include: (1) implementing engineering controls (e.g., alarm systems, security devices, restricted access, effective indoor and outdoor lighting, locking cars, etc.); (2) implementing administrative controls (e.g., establishing networks with local police, requiring employees to report all threats or acts of violence, developing an emergency response system with a trained multi-disciplinary response team, etc.); and (3) providing awareness training to employees.

OSHA realizes that it does not have sufficient staffing to inspect every workplace for violence issues or to investigate every complaint of workplace violence. As a result, it will first determine whether an inspection or investigation should be initiated based on three criteria: known risk factors, evidence of employer and/or industry recognition of the potential for workplace violence in that industry, and existence of effective and feasible methods to reduce or eliminate the risk of violence.

The following risk factors are the most likely to trigger an OSHA inspection or investigation. And the more of them, the higher the likelihood that OSHA will come knocking on your door. OSHA’s list of risk factors:

  1. Working with unstable or volatile persons (primarily in high-risk industries such as healthcare, social services, and criminal justice);
  2. Working alone or in small numbers;
  3. Working late at night or during early morning hours;
  4. Working in high-crime areas;
  5. Work involving the exchange of money or guarding of valuable property or possessions;
  6. Working in community-based settings (e.g., mental health clinics, drug abuse treatment clinics, pharmacies, nursing homes, etc.); and
  7. Work involving the delivery of passengers, goods or services.

Even if a particular workplace does not have a high risk profile, the occurrence of even one serious incident of violence can be traumatizing to employees. Many of the steps recommended by OSHA involve little or no cost. Bottom line: it makes good business sense to have a sound workplace violence prevention program.