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Chapter 2: Identifying and Assessing Workplace Violence Hazards

Many factors have led to an increase in workplace violence both within the workplace and our society. Guns and other weapons are on the street and more people are willing to address their problems through violence.

Many factors have led to an increase in workplace violence both within the workplace and our society. Guns and other weapons are on the street and more people are willing to address their problems through violence. Much of this violence spills over into workplaces, such as hospital emergency rooms, social service offices, schools, as well as neighborhoods where housing inspectors, road workers, home health workers and child welfare workers must work.

Budget and policy decisions can have direct and negative effects on workplace safety. Staffing levels in many public institutions and agencies are not adequate in settings where workers are dealing with inmates, patients, clients or others who pose a risk of violence. Changes in policy, such as in public assistance, can cause frustration and hostility among recipients, who in turn may direct their anger at the workers whose job it is to administer the programs.

Although many people believe that workplace violence is random and unpredictable, a number of factors have been identified that may increase a worker’s risk for violence. Identifying these risk factors involves looking at the work environment and work practices along with victim and perpetrator characteristics:

Working conditions associated with workplace violence include:

  • low staffing levels
  • working alone
  • working late at night or early in the morning
  • working with money or prescription drugs
  • poor lighting
  • lack of quick communication
  • lack of controlled access to workplace
  • long waits for services by customers, clients or patients, and/or
  • the lack of available services.

Victim characteristics include:

  • employees who work in homes or in the community;
  • workers who handle money or prescription drugs;
  • workers in correctional institutions or institutions for the mentally ill or developmentally disabled who are not trained in violence avoidance or self-defense;
  • employees who provide care, advice or information, such as health care workers, mental health workers, emergency room and admission workers, and social services workers;
  • workers who handle complaints, such as social service, child welfare and unemployment workers; and/or
  • workers who have the authority to act against the public, inspect premises and enforce laws, such as inspectors, child welfare workers, law enforcement/corrections officers and security guards.

Perpetrator characteristics include:

  • persons with a history of violent behavior
  • gang members
  • relatives of injured persons
  • drug users

Although some employers and so-called workplace violence “experts” promote profiling of perpetrators to predict violence, it is often inaccurate and can lead to mislabeling and possible discrimination against groups of people and workers. For more information on profiling, consult Chapter 7.

AFSCME in action

Research has shown that the most important predictor of future violence is past violence. It is vital, therefore, that staff in institutions or social service agencies have access to information on violent incidents caused by clients or patients. Some AFSCME locals have negotiated for the “right-to-know” about the violent histories of clients and patients. For example, Oregon AFSCME Local 1246 (Council 75) negotiated with the Oregon State Fairview Training Center that: “the Agency shall make available all information regarding clients assigned to the work unit. If an employee who normally does not work on the cottage, visits it for purposes of carrying out assigned duties, the employee may contact the person responsible for the shift to inquire about any clients who may be dangerous.”

Identifying hazards, collecting information and documenting incidents is a very important part of addressing workplace violence problems. A hazard assessment is a method of identifying, analyzing and documenting workplace hazards.Assessing workplace violence hazards involves some of the same tools used to document any other workplace safety or health problem.These include checklists and surveys, investigating incidents and reviewing available records.

  1. Inspect the Workplace —Appendix A contains a workplace violence inspection checklist that can be used as part of a safety and health inspection or safety audit.While inspecting for workplace violence risk factors, review the physical facility and note the presence or absence of security measures. Local law enforcement officials may also be able to conduct a security audit or provide information about their experiences with crime in the area.
  2. Conduct a Survey —The most important source of information on workplace hazards is workers. In fact,workers may be the only source of information on workplace violence hazards since management may not document incidents (or near misses). In addition, conducting regular surveys may also enable the local union to evaluate workplace violence prevention measures. Information can be collected either through a written questionnaire distributed to workers or through one-onone personal interviews.A written survey may be appropriate if the union wants personal or sensitive information. For example, a worker may be reluctant to voice to a union representative fears about a co-worker, but may be more willing to describe the problem in an anonymous questionnaire. Alternatively, a one-on-one interview is a good technique for organizing as it gets people talking about their jobs and working conditions. Oral surveys are also a way to involve workers who do not read well.Appendices B through E contain samples of workplace violence surveys.  
  3. Analyze Safety Records — By reviewing records of prior instances of workplace violence, local unions may be able to identify factors that contributed to the incident. Some of these documents must be requested from the employer. Others (for example, medical records or workers’ compensation records) may require permission from the affected worker. Sensitive or confidential information may not be necessary to analyze the incidents; a summary of the information that includes at least the nature of the injury and type of treatment needed may be sufficient.

Records and reports on prior incidents may help determine:

  • If a workplace violence problem exists and how serious the problem is.If management is aware, or should be aware, that a workplace violence problem exists.
  • Trends in a particular department or work area, at a certain time of day or night, among specific job titles or job tasks, or under a particular supervisor or manager.

Once the risks for workplace violence have been identified and documented, the local union may not be able to address all of them at once. Rank issues based on how many people are affected, how easily they can be resolved, how serious they are or other criteria based upon local needs.

Types of Records to Review

Request from the Employer:

  • Injury and Illness Log (OSHA Form 300) for the past two years to determine if any assaults or injuries associated with violence have been reported.*
  • Workers’ compensation records for the past two years to see if any worker has applied for medical or lost-time benefits due to a workplace violence injury.
  • Employee medical records to check if workers ever sought treatment for minor or severe workplace violence injuries.**
  • Incident reports (including threats) to detect any patterns of workplace violence.
  • Reports conducted by security personnel, such as an onsite security review.
  • Minutes or records from labor/management or safety committee meetings where issues of workplace violence were discussed or raised.
  • Complaints made by employees, citizens, clients, patients or customers about violent or threatening incidents.

Other Records to Obtain:

  • Police reports on violent incidents or suspicious activity in and around the workplace.
  • Grievances and arbitrations related to workplace violence such as harassment, assaults, security hazards or threats.
  • Correspondence between the union, management, OSHA or any other official pertaining to workplace violence or security.

* In all states with federally approved OSHA coverage for public employees, public employers are required to maintain and keep for five years a log of all job-related injuries and illnesses. The federal version of this form is called OSHA Form 300.

** If a public employer is covered by federal OSHA Standard 1910.20, individual employees have a right to obtain copies of their personal medical records held by the employer or the employer’s consulting physician. Union representatives have the right to obtain overall medical results, as long as individual workers are not identified. The union can receive written authorization from a worker to receive his/her medical records.

AFSCME in action

In 1996, the Wisconsin State Employees Union sponsored workshops that introduced members to workplace violence issues and what they could do about it. As a result of educating employees, an ad hoc joint labor/management committee on workplace violence was created. The committee developed a workplace violence policy that served as a first step in developing specific actions such as methods of supporting victims and witnesses of workplace violence, preventive measures, education and training, and data collection and analysis.

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