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OSHA focuses on workplace violence standard for health sector

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration will commence rule-making for a standard to protect health care and social assistance workers from workplace violence nationwide, David Michaels announced on his last day as assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. 

Every year, OSHA staffers are “shocked” by the number of workplace injuries and fatalities in this sector reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he said on Tuesday during a public meeting held at Department of Labor headquarters in Washington. In 2015, there were more than 11,000 violent incidents against employees in the health care and social assistance sector — a number that is nearly as high as all other industries combined, Mr. Michaels said. 

“It is clear that workplace violence is a serious occupational hazard that presents a significant risk for health care and social assistance workers, and I believe that a standard protecting health care and social assistance workers against workplace violence is necessary,” he said. 

OSHA’s decision to pursue a rule-making came in response to a petition filed by a group of labor unions in July 2016 advocating that the agency pursue a formal standard to mandate employers in the industry take certain actions to protect these workers. Unions previously pursued the same avenue in California, which led state regulators to adopt the first workplace violence prevention standard for health care workers in the country.

Dozens of health care workers testified Tuesday about the violence they regularly experienced in their jobs, including being stabbed with objects, kicked and punched by patients and family members, and stalked, and the culture of silence that often keeps them from reporting these incidents. 

“Every bedside nurse in the country can tell you workplace violence in health care settings has grown to epidemic proportions,” said Jean Ross, a registered nurse and co-president of Silver Spring, Maryland-based National Nurses United, a union that represents more than 150,000 nurses in the United States and petitioned OSHA to pursue a standard. 

A “galvanizing moment” for the union came in 2010 when Cynthia Palomata, a registered nurse working at Contra Costa County Jail in Martinez, California, died in a “preventable” incident of workplace violence after she was hit on the head with a lamp while trying to help an inmate faking a seizure, she said. 

“Had the lamp been affixed or the lighting recessed, there may not have been a ready weapon available to cause this tragedy,” Ms. Ross said. 

Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary for OSHA, spoke of employers failing to respond to employee concerns and even disciplining workers for experiencing violence in the workplace, which the agency has previously tried to address via guidelines and enforcement actions taken under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause before pursuing a rule-making. 

“It’s been a long time coming, I think, in terms of addressing this issue through a regulatory sense, but I think the evidence is clear of the significant risk that workplace violence poses (and) the costs workplace violence imposes, particularly on workers — not just in terms of money, but in terms of their physical and mental health — and the need for additional steps to be taken by OSHA to ensure workplaces are safe from workplace violence,” he said.

However, he noted that rule-making is usually “a slow process,” with the U.S. Government Accountability Office reporting it takes the agency an average of 7¾ years to develop and issue a standard. 

“Don’t hold your breath,” he said. “It will require constant vigilance on your part to move the process forward. If the crowd here is any indication, I’m sure constant vigilance will not be a problem.” 

Public comments are due by April 6 and can be submitted through federal rule-making portal Regulations.gov.