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A win for private-sector employees: Making strides on federal workplace violence legislation

By KATE MOSTACCIO

Private-sector health care and social services workers have cleared one hurdle in the fight for safety on the job.

The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, which requires the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to address workplace violence in the health care and social service sectors, was passed by the House of Representatives November 21.

Under the legislation, the USDOL “must promulgate an occupational safety and health standard that requires certain employers in the health care and social service sectors … to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for protecting health care workers, social service workers, and other personnel from workplace violence.”

New York’s standard

The 2006 New York State Workplace Violence Prevention Law and PESH Standard requires public employers (except K-12 schools) to develop and implement workplace violence prevention programs that cover all employees at each of their worksites. The law was the most comprehensive standard in the country at that time, and was intended to reduce workplace violence for public-sector workers. PEF lobbied New York legislators for years to pass the law.

Workplace violence under New York’s law is defined as an attempt or threat, whether verbal or physical, to inflict physical injury; any intentional display of force which would give an employee reason to fear or expect bodily harm; Intentional and wrongful physical contact with a person without his or her consent that entails some injury; or stalking.

PEF leaders and health and safety staff worked closely with NY agencies to develop robust workplace violence prevention programs; conduct risk evaluations; and review workplace violence incident reports at least annually.

Joint effort to protect workers

PEF recognizes the need for safe workplaces and works with members across state agencies to ensure the New York standards are being followed. Union leaders and staff strongly advocated for similar protections for private-sector workers.

“Our members are covered by the NYS DOL PESH standard for Workplace Violence Prevention,” said PEF occupational safety and health specialist Geraldine Stella. “The proposed OSHA standard is for private-sector workplaces. But an injury to one is an injury to all, and we will fight for any law or standard that protects workers.”

In 2017, PEF Region 10 Coordinator and Article 18 statewide H&S Co-Chair Darlene Williams and Stella testified at hearings about establishing an OSHA workplace violence standard for health care and social service settings.

“We looked at this as an opportunity to use what we learned from our own PESH standard, and hopefully strengthen the proposed standard, as well as strengthen ours,” Williams said.

During the hearings, Williams relayed a poignant story about a PEF outpatient psychologist who had been brutally assaulted on the job by a patient under the influence of K2, a synthetic drug that causes psychotic and violent behavior.

“She did everything right that day, everything she was taught, and more,” Williams told the panel. “She literally saved someone else’s life while suffering this assault.”

Instances like this continue to occur to this day, years later, and shine a light on the need to hold employers accountable.

Under the federal act, private-sector employers would be required tol investigate workplace violence incidents, risks, or hazards as soon as practicable; provide training and education to employees who may be exposed to workplace-violence hazards and risks; meet record keeping requirements; and prohibit acts of discrimination or retaliation against employees for reporting workplace violence incidents, threats, or concerns.

During the hearings, Stella said PEF urged the use of strong and precise language in the standards.

“The standards must include incidents as a result of violence between patients, clients, or customers,” she told the panel. “Whether intended or not, it is still violence in the workplace. And, age and diminished capacity does not mean it is not a workplace violence incident. We need clear and strong language in the OSHA standard on this. Strong language for enforcement must be included, using shall, must and will, instead of may, could or perhaps.”

One of PEF’s parent unions, AFT, lobbied hard for the legislation.

“This is a historic moment: We believe this is the first time the House has passed a positive worker health and safety bill in nearly 20 years,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten following the vote. “Every single worker in this country should have the right to a safe and welcoming workplace, no matter what job they do. They should know their employers have done everything possible to keep them safe from violence or harm. Yet our nurses, healthcare professionals and social service workers have no specific federal protections at work.

“Today, the House of Representatives passed a bill to change that. The representatives sent a strong message that violence on the job is not inevitable or acceptable for the millions of healthcare professionals who provide care in our communities but increasingly find themselves subject to workplace attacks,” she said.

The legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 14 and was sent to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. It awaits further action.

Bill proposes removing the exemption for schools

The New York State AFL-CIO is also urging Gov. Cuomo to sign legislation that would require schools, currently exempt from the New York State Workplace Violence Prevention Law, to develop and implement programs to prevent workplace violence in public schools.

“Too many tragedies have occurred in schools across the nation to continue the exemption from this important safety law,” said NYS AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento in a letter to the governor. “This bill would simply hold school districts to the same high standard of workplace violence prevention as other public employers.”


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