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In Landmark Ruling, Employer Held Accountable after Social Service Worker Stabbed to Death

In Landmark Ruling, Employer Held Accountable after Social Service Worker Stabbed to Death

National COSH Says Stronger Protections Needed, Including
New Legislation to Establish OSHA Standard on Workplace Violence
 

WASHINGTON, DC – In a landmark case, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) has ruled that Integra Health Management, a social service employer, is accountable for failing to protect workers from workplace violence.

Integra was cited for safety violations following the tragic death of an employee who was stabbed nine times, then left bleeding on a front lawn after a December 2012 home visit to an agency client with a history of mental illness and violent criminal behavior.

“It is well-known – and tragic – that healthcare and social service workers are frequent victims of workplace violence,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). “Employers have a legal responsibility to act on this knowledge and provide a safe and healthy workplace. Integra failed and a social service worker lost her life.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare workers are five times more likely than workers in other sectors to be the victim of workplace violence. Stronger protections are needed, said Martinez. “A specific OSHA standard on workplace violence is required to offer better protect to healthcare and social service workers,” she said. “Instead of waiting for more workers to be injured or killed, Congress should direct OSHA to provide stronger enforcement.”

National COSH filed an amicus curiae brief in the OSHRC proceeding, Secretary of Labor vs. Integra Health Management, Inc. The case was decided on March 4, 2019.

“This ruling will help prevent future tragedies,” said attorney Randy Rabinowitz, who represented National COSH, the National Association of Social Workers and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as amici in this case. “Employers are now on notice of their responsibility under existing law to reduce the risks of workplace violence.”

The murdered social service worker, who is not identified by name in the OSHRC ruling, raised safety concerns to her supervisor after a previous home visit. Despite these concerns, she was assigned – alone – to complete a required assessment with the client.

Following the tragedy, Integra was cited by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), including a finding of a “serious violation” of the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act by exposing workers “to the hazard of being physically assaulted by members [clients] with a history of violent behavior.”

Two citations against Integra were upheld in 2015 by an OSHA administrative law judge. Integra appealed the ruling. This week’s decision by the OSHRC upholds the original citations, which included $10,500 in proposed penalties and a requirement that Integra implement a workplace violence prevention program.

In its amicus brief, National COSH argued that Integra had the ability to reduce the risk of workplace violence. The company could have:

…increased the training for service coordinators, assigned an experienced service coordinator to initial assessments of patients with a history of violence, or implemented a mandatory buddy system so a service coordinator would not face a potentially violent situation alone. None of these abatement measures require changes to the physical aspects of the workplace. Integra is feasibly able to implement each of them.

This week’s OSHRC ruling reinforces that employers must reduce the risk of workplace violence under the general duty clause of the OSH Act. Healthcare and social service workers would have even more protection, however, with a specific OSHA standard on this topic.

In January 2017, in response to a petition from National COSH, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, National Nurses United and other labor and public health advocates, OSHA initiated a rulemaking process to issue a workplace violence prevention standard for healthcare and social service workers.

The rulemaking process has since been stalled. In February, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), introduced the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, which directs OSHA to issue standard requiring health care and social service employers to implement a plan to reduce the risk of workplace violence.

“We can never accept that violence is just ‘part of the job’,” said Jora Trang, managing attorney at Worksafe and chair of the National COSH board of directors. “Assaults on healthcare and social service workers are not random. They are not unpredictable. These are known hazards – and like other hazards, the risks can be reduced with rigorous standards and tough enforcement.”

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a public hearing on Rep. Courtney’s bill on February 27. Statements from members of Congress and witnesses are available here.

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