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Chapter 1: Workplace Violence: A Union Issue

Violence in the workplace has become an epidemic. Not only is workplace violence increasing in those workplaces where violence is expected, such as corrections, law enforcement and mental health, but it has become a danger in almost every occupation.

Violence in the workplace has become an epidemic. Not only is workplace violence increasing in those workplaces where violence is expected, such as corrections, law enforcement and mental health, but it has become a danger in almost every occupation that deals with the public. Many AFSCME members face the threat of violence every day.

Workplace violence is a serious and deadly hazard; one that can cause not only physical injury, but serious psychological damage as well. Injuries and deaths related to workplace violence cannot be tolerated any more than any other workplace injury or death. Most violent incidents are predictable and preventable. And, as with other workplace hazards such as asbestos or noise, it is the employer’s responsibility to take reasonable measures to minimize the risks for workplace violence.

Currently, there is no federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard that specifically addresses workplace violence. However, in 2006, AFSCME affiliates in New York played a leading role in passing the first state law that deals with this issue. See Appendix H for the text of the New York State Workplace Violence Prevention Act.

Workers can act together through their union to move an employer to reduce the risks for violence. An effective workplace violence prevention program should include:

  • methods for identifying work practices and environmental factors that may lead to violence;
  • procedures for implementing controls that will reduce the risks for violence; and/or
  • procedures for responding to violence if it occurs.

What is workplace violence?

The workplace is any place a worker performs a job, such as an office, hospital, parking lot, school, private residence or public building.Violence is defined as any act of aggression that causes physical or emotional harm, such as physical assault, rape, verbal abuse, threats (including bomb scares) and even sexual harassment. Types of assaults include pinching, biting, hitting, grabbing, kicking or being struck by a weapon. Almost any object can be used as a weapon.

Workplace violence often captures attention only when a death occurs. But fatalities are only the tip of the iceberg.Threats and assaults that cause injuries occur much more frequently and may escalate into murder. Even the fear of assault or witnessing an assault on a co-worker can seriously affect a worker’s health.

How often does workplace violence occur?

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for 2005, there were 564 homicides in the workplace, the fourth leading cause of death on the job. For women, homicide was the second leading cause of death, accounting for 24% of workplace fatalities. The problem of workplace violence is much greater for state and local government workers than for private-sector workers. According to the 2005 BLS 2005 study, within the preceding months of the survey:

  • 32% of all state government workplaces reported some form of violence;
  • 15% of local governments experienced some type of workplace violence; and
  • 5% of private industry reported workplace violence.

For this report, BLS defined workplace violence as violent acts directed towards a person at work or on duty (i.e., physical assaults, threats of assault, harassment, intimidation or bullying). In its analysis, BLS explained why there is a higher rate of violence in the public sector:

The higher reported incidence of violence in state and local government workplaces may be attributed to their work environments. These workplaces reported much higher percentages of working directly with the public, having a mobile workplace, working with unstable or violent persons, working in high crime areas, guarding valuable goods or property, and working in community based settings than did private industry.

Statistics, however, do not reflect the “true” rate of workplace violence. Incidents of workplace violence often are not reported. Employers may not encourage employees to report assaults or threats.Workers may not report an assault out of fear they will be blamed for it and disciplined by management.Workers also may blame themselves for being assaulted.

Types of workplace violence

Most workplace violence falls into the following four categories:

  • violence committed by clients and patients;
  • violence associated with robbery or other crimes;
  • violence among co-workers or managers; and/or
  • domestic violence that spills over into the workplace.

Although the media focuses on the “crazy worker-type violence,” where a worker kills a supervisor or co-workers, violence among co-workers occurs very infrequently compared to other types of workplace violence. In fact, violence among co-workers accounts for less than 6% of all incidents.The vast majority of injuries and fatalities due to violence are the result of robberies and other crimes, or dealing with patients and clients. Sadly, other intentional acts of violence cause mass casualties. On September 11, 2001, over 3,000 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, where a plane crashed. In 1995, 168 people were killed when a federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up.

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