Legislation would create federal standard to prevent workplace violence

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Violence is a daily threat for 15 million healthcare workers in the United States, which is why union activists, including members of AFT affiliates, are preparing to escalate the fight for a federal standard that requires protections against workplace violence.

Healthcare workers moved closer to getting that standard when Rep. Joe Courtney, (D-Conn.) introduced the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act last month. The measure directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a standard requiring healthcare and social service employers to write and implement a workplace violence prevention plan to protect employees from violent incidents.

This legislation compels OSHA to do what employees, safety experts and members of Congress have been seeking for years; it will create “an enforceable standard to ensure that employers are taking these risks seriously, and creating safe workplaces that their employees deserve,” says Courtney.

AFT members have been among the most vocal in calling for an OSHA standard. In 2015, a coalition of unions representing healthcare workers, led by the AFT, petitioned OSHA for a workplace violence prevention standard to cover all workers in healthcare and social assistance. The petition was the culmination of work started by the AFT in 2014, when the union worked with key members of Congress to seek a Government Accountability Office study to investigate whether the voluntary OSHA guidelines for workplace violence prevention in healthcare were enough to protect workers. The GAO agreed to the investigation; thanks in large part to the many AFT members and activists who pushed so hard, a report was released in May 2016.

workplace safety

“Millions of Americans in the healthcare profession go to work every day to care for the sick, the elderly and the mentally ill, yet they don’t feel safe or protected themselves from the preventable and often tragic assaults that occur in hospitals and other healthcare-related settings. With this bill, we can change that,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten.

In the absence of a standard, AFT members have lobbied for their states to enact legislation or regulations aimed at prevention. These measures designate penalties for assaults on healthcare workers—nurses in particular—and/or require hospitals to create workplace violence prevention programs. In addition, our members have used their contract negotiations to establish joint committees that monitor workplace safety; and members have sought to establish comprehensive workplace violence programs that help health professionals identify risks and warning signs, and to create a system for reporting incidents.

Helene Andrews, a retired registered nurse from Newtown, Conn., notes that the legislation is long overdue but is pleased it has been introduced. Andrews has been outspoken on the need for an OSHA standard. “During the last eight years that I worked, I was assaulted three times, including on my last day of work. The three assaults resulted in three major surgeries and in lengthy and painful recoveries each time. I suffered for months with each injury and still have residual pain and disabilities. Preventing violent workplace injuries should be given the highest priority, and I salute Rep. Joe Courtney for his efforts.”

“That is why this bill is needed,” Weingarten says. “No one should face violence, intimidation or fear for their safety while they’re on the job. As a union of healthcare professionals, educators and public employees, we welcome this legislation because it outlines protections and specific safety standards for the people who care for the sick, treat the injured and work in other frontline care jobs.”

It’s unlikely that the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act will pass during the current lame-duck Congress, but it will be reintroduced in the new Congress next year. The AFT will seek your support in asking representatives to sign on as co-sponsors of the legislation. Stay tuned.

[Adrienne Coles]