OSHA cites convenience store owner for workplace violence risks

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which administers and enforces the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, has cited a convenience store owner for allegedly failing to safeguard its employees from robberies and other forms of violence on the job.

In the Matter of TMT Inc.

Bruce Rolfsen reports for the BNA Daily Labor Report (Nov. 30, by subscription only):

Citations issued Nov. 19 against a Texas convenience store owner for allegedly failing to protect workers from robberies and other violence marks an increased willingness on the part of the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to use the general duty clause as a tool to prevent workplace violence.
OSHA cited TMT Inc. with four alleged violations of the general duty clause, one each for Whip In stores in Garland and Mesquite, and citations for two stores in Dallas. Proposed fines total $19,600.
. . . The citation announcement marked the first time in recent memory that OSHA has used the general duty clause to cite a convenience store operator for violations related to workplace violence, according to observers who follow convenience store safety.

 

General duty clause

OSHA issued the citation under the law’s general duty clause, which requires employers to provide workers with conditions of employment “that are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Despite thousands of individual regulations addressing workplace safety promulgated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, there is no specific provision addressing workplace violence. However, OSHA has released a fact sheet on workplace violence and engaged in educational initiatives for employers about the subject.

Application to workplace bullying?

OSHA’s recognition of workplace violence as a serious hazard raises hopes that workplace bullying, too, will get greater attention.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal government’s research arm on workplace safety, has included bullying in its studies of workplace violence and aggression and hosted meetings of leading researchers to discuss the impact of bullying on worker health.  NIOSH researchers have examined organizational dynamics of workplace bullying and the implications for intervention strategies.

Back in 2005, I participated in a working group convened by NIOSH to examine workplace bullying and psychological aggression. This included a day-long session in Cincinnati that, to this day, remains one of the most intense and insightful exchanges I’ve participated in on this topic.

We can now at least imagine the possibility that research findings about the harm caused by bullying will lead to a stronger regulatory response.  As I’ve noted earlier on this blog, some of the analysis for that response may be found in the work of professor Susan Harthill of Florida Coastal School of Law, who has argued persuasively that occupational safety and health law can be part of a multi-pronged approach that includes collaborative and cooperative efforts between public and private employment relations stakeholders.

Limitations

Of course, mild penalties are one of the genuine limitations of current federal workplace safety law, as reflected by rather paltry proposed fines (under $20,000) in the TMI case. In addition, this statute does not allow individual claims for damages by injured workers. Identical limitations would apply in workplace bullying situations as well.

Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction, and with the current Administration in place for another four years, it bears watching.

Fighting flight attendants: Not nearly as funny as it may seem

During the past week, we’ve been treated to two news stories about flight attendants getting into arguments that required their respective flights to head back to the gate.

One argument came on an American Eagle flight that was ready for take off. Ben Mutzabaugh, writing for USA Today‘s travel section, explains how it got started:

Passengers on a New York-to-Washington American Eagle flight were delayed for more than four hours Wednesday after the airline’s attendants got into an argument with each other, according to NBC Washington.

Witnesses tell NBC the spat seemed to begin when one attendant was on her phone. That’s when the flight’s other attendant made this announcement: “Everyone needs to put their phones away, and electronics and so on, including the flight attendant.”

On Wednesday, two attendants on a United Airlines flight got into it soon after take off, necessitating that the plane return to the airport. Mutzabaugh reports again:

A fight between two attendants forced a Chicago-bound United Airlines flight to return to Raleigh/Durham shortly after takeoff this morning, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

“Our law enforcement team was notified by the tower that the captain had requested law enforcement to meet the aircraft,” Mindy Hamlin, RDU spokeswoman, tells the News & Observer. “The aircraft had gotten about 50 miles out when he reported a possible assault on the aircraft.”

Flying the stressed-out skies

Fighting flight attendants. It sounds like the stuff of a late-night talk show monologue, doesn’t it?

But before we start making fun, let’s at least acknowledge that since 9/11, working in the passenger aviation industry has become an increasingly stressful job — especially for rank-and-file cabin crews. Layoffs and furloughs have been frequent. A job once associated with glamour and seeing the world has changed dramatically.

Flight attendants now are expected to be the front line eyes and ears against possible terrorism. They must work packed flights of passengers who are surly about going through the TSA security gauntlet and then stuffed onto planes with a beverage and pretzels to tide them over.

In addition to lousier working conditions, their compensation and benefits have been in a free fall. Their unions have been pressed to make major concessions, and airline pension funds have gone bankrupt. These cutbacks and pension fund implosions have occurred despite healthy bonuses given to high-level executives at many major airlines.

I don’t know anything about the individual flight attendants involved in these arguments. And regardless of the stressors they’re facing, the safety risks involved in these behaviors likely justify disciplinary measures.

That said, instead of joking about “cat fights in the air,” we should consider the strong possibility that stressful working conditions and sharp cuts in compensation are fueling tensions between these workers and making it more likely that similar incidents will occur.

Working Notes: September 5, 2012

 

From TCB Review article on workplace bullying

Periodically I use this Working Notes feature to highlight a variety of odds & ends worthy of mention:

1. The Conference Board Review on workplace bullying

It’s a good thing when The Conference Board Review, the flagship publication of The Conference Board — an influential, global research organization promoting best practices in business — runs a major feature on workplace bullying. That’s why I’ve been meaning to share this thorough, well-written article about workplace bullying by Vadim Liberman from the Summer 2012 issue:

Bosses have tormented workers ever since there were workers to torment, but only recently have we become sensitized to what studies indicate is four times more common than sexual harassment. Most workplace bullying doesn’t climax at the point of a pistol, but it can be devastating nevertheless to morale, productivity, and HR departments, strongly affecting not only the target but his whole department—and even the entire company.

Vadim interviewed me at length for the piece, and I am pleased that he dug well beneath the surface to present a lot of information and different points of view to his readers.

2. Brian Austin, Madison WI detective and labor activist, on Labor Day

Here’s a thoughtful, substantive, bracing blog post about the meaning of Labor Day 2012 from Brian Austin, a Madison, Wisconsin detective and labor activist:

Today is labor day.  This should be a day of celebrating the achievements of the labor movement in providing dignity and a voice for all workers, yet this year I am filled with a sense of both urgency and alarm.  Workers in this nation are in real trouble, and many don’t even know it.

Amen. Keep reading.

3. Sara Horowitz, Freelancers Union founder, on Labor Day for independent workers

Sara Horowitz, pioneering founder of the Freelancers Union, looks at the meaning of the labor movement for independent workers in this blog piece for The Atlantic:

At Freelancers Union, we’ve been heavily influenced by [labor leader Sidney] Hillman’s vision. It’s why we built our own social-purpose insurance company to serve our independent workforce. It’s why we’re sponsoring new nonprofit health plans in New York, New Jersey, and Oregon next year. And it’s why we’re opening a bricks-and-mortar, zero-co-pay medical center in Downtown Brooklyn this fall.

Sara and the Freelancers Union are blazing trails to create support for, and solidarity within, the growing sector of independent workers.

4. Employment lawyer Jon Hyman on preventing workplace violence

Ohio employment lawyer Jon Hyman has penned a concise, useful blog piece on preventing workplace violence for Workforce Management that discusses the importance of organizational culture:

1. Treat employees with respect—while they work for you, during a termination, and even after they are no longer your employees.

2. Flag at-risk employees for assistance.

3. Offer employee assistance programs for those who need them.

4. Involve security personnel and local law enforcement at the first hint that an employee might turn violent.

Over the years, Jon and I have had spirited exchanges over the need for workplace bullying legislation. His excellent Ohio Employer’s Law Blog is a terrific resource for employment lawyers and human resources administrators.

News reports: Shooter near Empire State Building was a laid-off worker seeking revenge

At least nine people have been wounded and two are dead following a shooting this morning near the Empire State Building in Manhattan. One of the dead is the gunman, who was shot by police.

Early news reports at least raised the spectre of terrorism. One analyst even discussed the possibility that terrorists might stage a test run of sorts to see how law enforcement authorities would react to shootings in crowded midtown Manhattan. I suppose that in view of the memories of 9/11 seared onto New York’s consciousness, such speculation is natural.

But no, for better or worse, it apparently had nothing to do with terrorism. The shooter was a 53-year-old man who was laid off from his job, and his target was his former boss. Here’s a summary of news reports from Jason Sickles of Yahoo! News (link here):

The shooting occurred at 9:03 a.m. ET at Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. The fatal incident was the act of a disgruntled former employee. The gunman, a 53 year-old women’s accessories designer named Jeffrey Johnson, was fired from his job during a corporate downsizing at Hazan Imports and returned to his office Friday morning to target his 41 year-old boss.

The shooter followed his coworker down 33rd Street, and shot him outside of Legend’s Bar, according to the New York Post. It is unclear if he fired into a crowd of pedestrians outside of the Empire State Building, or if pedestrians were caught in crossfire, reported the New York Daily News.

Frightening sign of the times?

Obviously we know way too little to make definitive assessments about what drove this man to do what he did. However, while conceding the likelihood of some pre-existing mental instability or illness, I’m willing to suggest that what pushed him over the edge had something to do with the desperation, fear, and anger that can accompany losing one’s job at middle age. I’m not making excuses for such a terrible act of violence, only offering a possible explanation.

Perhaps I’m guilty of speculatively filling in the gaps, but once I read some of these details, I had a sinking feeling that this is a sign of sad and desperate times.

Cruelty on a school bus

After watching this video, I am stunned by the unrelenting, ongoing, almost casual cruelty it depicts. A group of junior high school students from Greece School District in Rochester, NY, subject bus monitor Karen Klein to a profanity-laced stream of humiliating insults and threats. Suzan Clarke for ABC News reports (link here):

Klein, a 68-year-old mother of four and grandmother of eight, was riding on a school bus with several students from the district’s Athena Middle School in Rochester on Monday when she was subjected to mean and cruel mockery by several students.

In a 10-minute video that was uploaded to YouTube  on Tuesday by one of the students on the bus, several students can be heard taunting Klein, telling her she was a “fat ass,” “old ass,” dumb, poor and sweaty.  Most of the voices appear to be male, and their comments toward Klein are riddled with profanity.

The video is about 10 minutes long, but it feels like it goes on forever — or at least that’s how it must’ve felt to Karen Klein. One radio station blog reported that some of the kids involved posted it to their Facebook pages.

The video has gone viral, the news media have discovered it, and there’s even a fund created to support Karen Klein. (Google “school bus monitor video” and you’ll get dozens of news articles and blog commentaries.) At least there’s a public outcry about what occurred.

Okay, so lots of junior high kids can do and say mean things, and that doesn’t mean they inevitably will grow up to be horrible adults. But at a very young age, the kids in this video demonstrate the easy capacity for extreme, ongoing verbal abuse. There is no indication that they’re acting out of anger toward something that happened. They display not one ounce of conscience or understanding about what they’re doing to another human being. Apparently it doesn’t matter at all to them that she’s an older adult who obviously is becoming upset.

Let’s hope that Karen Klein is able to find a silver lining in the outpouring of public support she is receiving. And let’s hope these kids don’t grow up to become the adult versions of what they depicted in the video.

***

June 22, 2012 addendum — Jason Sickles reports for Yahoo! News (link here) that the fund for Karen Klein, originally intended to raise $5,000, has surpassed $500,000. Two of the boys involved in the verbal abuse have issued apologies. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, both the school district and the children who participated in the incident have been subjected to harassment and threats.

July 2, 2012 addendum — News outlets (e.g., Christian Science Monitor story here) have reported that the boys who harassed Karen Klein have been suspended from school for a year, and instead will be attending an alternative school during that time.  Klein is quoted as saying that she is “fine” with the penalty.

When I first heard that a suspension was in the offing, I was troubled by the possibility. These kids need more structure and discipline in their lives, not less. But the provision of alternative school arrangements makes this disposition an acceptable one.

The impromptu online fund started to give Klein a “vacation” has now reached well over $600,000, which means she’ll likely have the option of returning to work or retiring. It is the “feel good” aspect of this story, one in which people continued to give (and give) even though they were well aware that the original fundraising goal was a modest $5,000.

It also gave rise to greater public awareness of bullying behaviors and their impact on targeted individuals. The case of Karen Klein is a hybrid of sorts: We tend to separate school bullying from workplace bullying, but this event blended the two, with an adult employee being severely bullied by a group of school kids.

Readers left very insightful comments to this post, and I’d suggest reading through them for their collective wisdom.

***

Here’s an update that reports on the remarkable success of the fundraising campaign to help Karen Klein and what she plans to do with the money now that she has some freedom to decide her future.

Why we need psychologically healthy workplaces in the healthcare sector

It’s Saturday night and you’ve been in a car accident. Someone who had too much to drink swerved into your lane and caused a bad collision. You are in severe pain and fear that you’ve suffered serious injuries.

The paramedics arrive at the scene and whisk you to the nearest emergency room. Once there, you find yourself being cared for by a doctor and nurse who absorb information about your condition from the paramedics. As they check your vital signs, you pass out….

30 minutes earlier

For the sake of your own already sky-high stress levels, thank goodness you didn’t know that 30 minutes before your arrival, this doctor had been yelling mercilessly at the young nurse for a small mistake, right in front of her colleagues. The nurse was so rattled and embarrassed that she didn’t handle skillfully an emotionally out-of-control patient, who became angry at her and spat on her uniform just minutes before the paramedics wheeled you in.

It’s better you don’t know that your life is in the hands of a doctor with a short temper and a novice nurse who now is very skittish around him.

Violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare

Folks who work in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards will tell you that physical violence at the hands of patients (and sometimes their family members or friends) can be a significant risk of the job. Healthcare workers can be hit, pushed, kicked, spat upon, and otherwise assaulted (physically and verbally) by the very people they’re trying to help.

In addition, bullying and incivility are common forms of mistreatment in the healthcare workplace. Nurses and nurses’ aides seem to get it the worst, but others are targets as well. The problem is so serious that in 2008, the Joint Commission, an independent, non-profit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs, issued a standard on intimidating and disruptive behaviors at work, citing concerns about patient care. (See blog series about bullying in healthcare, starting here.)

An imperfect storm

Earlier this week, I blogged about the National Conference for Workplace Violence Prevention & Management in Healthcare Settings, hosted last weekend by the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. We heard a lot about physical violence committed by patients and about bullying & incivility dished out by co-workers.

What happens, however, when the two mix? Let’s say an emergency room treats potentially violent patients on a regular basis and also happens to be a place where employees treat each other so poorly that everyone is on edge? How do the concurrent risks of violence and bullying interact, to the point where workers are routinely stressed out and thus more prone to mistakes?

Let’s zero in on healthcare

This scenario underscores my belief that healthcare is a singularly important sector for studying and responding to disruptive behaviors of all types. The stakes could not be higher: They relate to workers and patients alike. A psychologically healthy healthcare workplace provides everyone with greater peace of mind, ranging from the workers to those of us who seek their help.

U of Cincinnati conference examines workplace violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare

I just returned from the superb National Conference for Workplace Violence Prevention & Management in Healthcare Settings, hosted by the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. This was one of those rare conferences where every speech, panel discussion, and poster session offered something informative and thought-provoking.

For the conference website, go here. Podcasts of conference programs will be posted during the summer.

Keynote address

An invitation to be one of the keynote speakers led to my being a part of the conference. Titled “Responding to Workplace Bullying in Healthcare: Ten Propositions,” here were my main points:

1.            The healthcare sector is an ideal locus for developing best practices to address workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility.

2.            Somehow, someway, the case for taking workplace bullying seriously has to be made to the most powerful stakeholders, especially management.

3.            Medical schools need to inculcate students in the importance of developing and exercising social intelligence in the healthcare workplace.

4.            Nursing schools need to teach students about bullying behaviors and the need for personal resilience.

5.            Nurses’ unions are uniquely situated to raise concerns about workplace bullying.

6.            Physicians and nurses should not be promoted to management positions without training in management skills.

7.            Individuals who treat co-workers abusively should be counseled, disciplined, and – if necessary – dismissed.

8.            The enactment of legal protections against severe, targeted bullying at work could enhance, not hinder, the management and HR functions of the healthcare workplace.

9.            Internal codes of conduct in healthcare institutions should (1) promote responsible speech, (2) nurture civility, and (3) prohibit abuse.

10.          Research must inform practice, which — in turn — must inform research.

Many thanks

I won’t even attempt to provide a sampling of the good stuff we heard, though I will be discussing various presentations and poster displays in future blog posts. For now, I simply want to extend my gratitude to members of the conference committee, especially professors Gordon Lee Gillespie and Donna Gates and coordinator Katy Roberto Marston, for their extraordinary efforts and hospitality:

Gordon Lee Gillespie, PhD, RN, UC College of Nursing; principal investigator
Donna M. Gates, EdD, RN, FAAN, UC College of Nursing; co-investigator
Bonnie Fisher
, PhD, UC College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services
William K. Fant
, PharmD, University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy
Barbara Forney
, Program Manager, University of Cincinnati College of Continuing Medical Education
Michelle Caruso
, PharmD, BCPS, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Terry Kowalenko
, MD, FACEP, University of Michigan Emergency Medicine
Alison C. McLeish
, PhD; UC Department of Psychology
Dianne Ditmer
, PhD, RN, FACFE, Kettering Medical Network
Christine Luca
, MSN, RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing
Katy Roberto Marston
, Conference Coordinator, University of Cincinnati
Carolyn Smith
, PhD(c), RN, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Ahlam Al-Natour
, PhD(c), RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing
Peggy Berry
, MSN, RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing

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