Innocent people lose their lives on the job trying to protect others yet there remains little to no protection for them. In the healthcare and social services sector, violence against workers is a growing problem across the nation causing severe injuries and often resulting in death, making healthcare one of the most dangerous professions in which to work. “Workplace violence” is defined as “any act of violence or threat of violence, without regard to intent, that occurs at a covered facility or while a covered employee performs a covered service.”

Every day healthcare and social service workers are at risk. Due to minimal staffing and little to no protection, these workers endure physical abuse with 69% of physical assaults and 71% of non-physical assaults reported in the sector. In 2016, the Government of Accountability Office (GOA) released a study revealing workplace violence is a serious concern for approximately 15 million healthcare workers in the United States.

Although, workers aren’t the only ones impacted. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) reports workplace violence causes businesses to lose an average of $250-$330 billion annually due to loss of productivity, illness, injuries, turnover, lawsuits, absenteeism and a loss of customers as a result of a damaged reputation. Despite being a real problem, many businesses under-report non-fatal injuries and incidents resulting in employers failing to protect their employees.

The Pitfalls Of OSHA

The American Journal of Industrial Medicine released a Washington state survey finding 90% of organizations were not complying with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recordkeeping and reporting regulations. In addition, OSHA disclosed an estimated 25% of workplace violence incidents go unreported. Furthermore, the safety and health administration asserts “nearly two million American workers report being victims of workplace violence each year.”

In 2015, OSHA published a webpage providing tools and resources for workers in the healthcare and social services industry. The webpage includes strategies, tools and real-life examples to enhance prevention measures and create a culture of safety. While the guidelines stress the importance of developing a prevention program, there’s no requirement for employers to create and implement one.

Nevertheless, the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported Rep. Bradley Byrne (R) and most of the Republican Party voted against a recent bill aimed at tackling the issue of workplace violence. Byrne’s reasoning was “OSHA already requires employers to take specific steps to protect employees and provide a safe work environment.” Yet, OSHA itself admits it “does not have a specific standard for workplace violence” and they “don’t require employers to implement workplace violence prevention programs.”

The Reactive Gap-Filler Provision

The General Duty Clause is an extension of OSHA that requires workplaces to be free from hazards that are likely to cause death or serious harm, including threats, workplace violence and other concerns. Unfortunately, this clause only enforces a fine after an event occurs and requires no plan in place to prevent and protect its employees. OSHA indicated “the best protection employers can offer is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence against or by their employees” or else risk getting fined. Fines range from $12,675 to a maximum of $126,749 per violation.

OSHA reports “over 75% of the 25,000 workplace assaults reported annually in the United States took place in hospitals and other healthcare and social services settings.” Violent attacks are common occurrences leaving workers severely injured, or worse, dead. Some attacks include spitting, choking, rape and sexual assault, threats and verbal assault, beating, shoving, stabbing and shooting.

Pamela Knight is one of the many workers who have lost their lives due to workplace violence. Knight worked as a child protection specialist for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and was attacked and beaten by the father of the child she was taking into protective custody. The same GAO study reported that violence against healthcare workers is 12 times higher than the overall workforce.

There is a clear lack of protection against employees and while its intentions are meant to be good, the zero-tolerance policy is not enough. The real problem is businesses are not being held accountable for failing to abide by OSHA regulations and their consequence for violating the General Duty Clause is receiving a fine. The clause is reactive in nature with larger organizations barely feeling the impact of its consequences.

The General Duty Clause is not specific or stern enough to be effective. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) stated “the term ‘zero tolerance’ could be misleading and counterproductive unless it is properly defined.” There needs to be a comprehensive plan in place before an incident occurs. Additionally, more awareness needs to be brought to workplace violence as well as procedures to be followed should an event happen.

A Proposed Solution With An Enforceable Standard

Rep. Joe Courtney (D) recently introduced a solution, H.R. 1309 – Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act. Under H.R. 1309, employers would be required to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to protect home healthcare, personnel, social service and other workers in the sector from workplace violence. The bill lays out the prominent role the Department of Labor would play by promoting health and safety standards while requiring employers to address violence in the social service and home care sectors, promptly investigate workplace violence incidents, hazards and risks, train workers who could be exposed to violent situations, maintain documentation and records and prohibit discrimination and retaliation against workers who report incidents or concerns.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R) voted against the bill acknowledging home and healthcare workers deserve protection, but doesn’t believe H.R. 1309 is the way to address the issue. Despite her rejection, she fails to offer a solution on how to improve existing legislation or enact a superior one.

Foxx instead wants to focus on vetting the individuals with whom workers come in contact. This would be rather impossible. Not everyone who commits a violent act has a background. Uncertainty remains around what would happen to those vetted who turn out to be dangerous especially should they need healthcare attention or are housing an abused child. This would lead to hospitals potentially turning away patients and leaving children to remain living in abusive homes.

While Courtney’s solution isn’t flawless, his plan would set a deadline for OSHA “to create an enforceable standard to ensure that employers are taking these risks seriously, and creating safe workplaces that their employees deserve.” However, Byrne said “the bill stands no chance of becoming a law.”

Priority needs to be placed on protecting the social services and healthcare workers. Rejecting a law that aims to do exactly that disregards the danger they face each day on their job. A lack of protection further contributes to the rising epidemic of violence in the sector.

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