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Onus on employers to curb workplace violence; here’s how

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Violence is a prominent problem in our society. It strikes all too frequently and can have devastating effects for victims, their families and friends and can have a traumatizing effect on co-workers.

Violence is a prominent problem in our society. It strikes all too frequently and can have devastating effects for victims, their families and friends and can have a traumatizing effect on co-workers.

To put the problem in perspective, homicide is the fourth-leading cause of work-related deaths.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.”

It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide. It happens in offices, mines, factories, stores and health care facilities.

I regularly treat people who have been subjected to work-related violence. In the majority of cases, the attacks occur in health care or social service environments and are caused by people not completely responsible for their actions.

These attacks typically involve someone who is mentally impaired, anxious or has an agitating medical condition. The involved caretaker often is trying to ensure that the subject is not going to hurt himself or herself.

HALF OF ALL INJURIES

While 20 percent of on-the-job injuries happen to health care workers, they account for 50 percent of all injuries resulting from workplace violence.

As such, last December OSHA published information on workplace violence in health care and social assistance in the Federal Register.

OSHA instructs its inspectors to “gather evidence to demonstrate whether an employer recognized, either individually or through its industry, the existence of a potential workplace violence hazard affecting his or her employees. Furthermore, investigations should focus on whether feasible means of preventing or minimizing such hazards were available to employers.”

It is clear that employers are expected to address this problem.

ZERO TOLERANCE

Many industries besides health care/social services are more likely to be subject to violence.

Occupations that involve money handling, working alone (taxi drivers and convenience store workers) or law enforcement are at risk. It is important that these employees be safeguarded from violence.

One step that OSHA recommends is to have a zero tolerance policy to violence in the workplace to include employees, visitors, patients, clients, contractors and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel.

It is vital to ensure that all workers know the policy and understand that all claims of workplace violence will be investigated and remedied promptly.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES

Keep in mind that if workplace violence occurs, steps should be taken to help the involved staff. Employee assistance programs are valuable tools in helping those who have been injured and for staff who have witnessed violent acts.

Often, people who have been attacked do not report having psychological problems unless they are specifically asked about their mental trauma.

Workplace violence often is random and therefore seems to be unmanageable. But there are steps that can be taken to reduce its likelihood and to mitigate the damage.

Dr. Basil Dolphin is board certified in occupational medicine at Lehigh Valley Health Network, where he serves as the medical director for HealthWorks, with four offices in the Lehigh Valley dedicated solely to occupational medicine. He has practiced occupational medicine for 29 years and can be reached at basil.dolphin@lvhn.org or 484-884-2249.

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