Fight Workplace Violence
By Margaret Collins

When someone says "Your job will be the death of you!" they might be  right. I am a healthcare worker in a small urban clinic, chronically understaffed. On the day I was physically assaulted it was more crowded than it had ever been. Patients filled the waiting room and spilled out into the hall.

One patient in particular took offense at being kept waiting a long time because an emergency case needed to be seen first. I had this patient begin changing in one x-ray room to save time while I started to take the x-ray of the emergency patient in a second x-ray room. As I was taking the x-ray of the emergency patient, I heard yelling and the sound of objects being thrown around in the first x-ray room. I entered and asked what was wrong, and he began to berate me in a loud voice. Sensing danger, I stepped out of the room and paged the security guard on the intercom.

Security didn't arrive. I went into the darkroom to develop the films of the emergency case. The enraged patient followed me into the darkroom and pushed the door open, fracturing my wrist. He then stormed out of the department. I was trembling in shock and disbelief. I was both afraid and relieved that I was still alive.

My horrifying experience is becoming more commonplace. Most of us have become aware of the increasing violence in our society, but of all the places where we expect to encounter violence, our workplace isn't one of them. But in New York City, homicide is the leading cause of death on the job. Twenty people are murdered each week in US workplaces, and one million workers are assaulted each year on the job.

One of the reasons for the dramatic increase in these incidents is the recent decline in funding for social services. Government, state, and local social service workers are on the front lines of this war. The bosses put their employees at risk in order to pay for cuts that benefit only the rich. When desperate people are forced to wait hours to see a doctor, or are denied food stamps or benefits, they frequently erupt in anger. Government workers in welfare, social security and unemployment offices are not only discouraged by their supervisors from advising their clients about their rights to benefits, they themselves are handling many more cases and are forced to push poor people "through the system" at an even faster pace. These civil servants are overworked and suffer the stressful effects of layoffs and cutbacks in their own work force. All of these factors can lead to workplace violence.

Many forms of aggression and abuse are considered workplace violence. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, workplace violence is any physical assault, threatening behavior, or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting. It can range from murder or physical violence to psychological trauma. Obscene phone calls, being cursed out, shouted at, or intimidated in any way are also workplace "violence."

Anyone can become the victim of a workplace assault, but the risks are higher in particular industries. Any type of work in which money is handled or that requires dealing with the public drastically increases the likelihood of workplace violence or death. Taxicab drivers, liquor store employees and health care workers are high on the "endangered species" list. Workplace murder is the leading killer of working women. Women workers tend to be predominantly employed in higher risk areas like the service and retail industries. In many cases, women are also victims of stalking and harassing behavior that originates in the home but tends to spill over into the workplace. Abusers often follow their prey to work and physically attack their victims there.

"One of the reasons for the dramatic increase in these incidents is the recent decline in funding for social services"

What can you do to protect yourself? Legally, your employer is required to provide a safe work environment. Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that "is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees." Sound vague? Laws protecting workers' rights that are written and enforced by the ruling class are usually imprecise and toothless. It's important to know our rights under the law, but our best tool for workers' protection is always organization.

A number of unions, such as SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and AFSCME (American

"In many cases women are also victims of stalking and harassing behaviour that originates in the home but tends to spill over into the workplace"

Federation of State County and Municipal Employees), have begun campaigns fighting workplace violence. If you are a member of a union, you should go to your union representative and ask if they have policies and training programs relating to workplace violence issues. If they don't have them, you have a great opportunity to agitate in the union to create them. If you aren't a member of a union, you should organize a meeting with your coworkers to raise the issue of workplace violence. The issue can be a spur to convince reluctant people that they need to organize. Unions aren't just pressure groups for higher pay: 40% of unions, according to the AFL-CIO, in the US are organized around non-wage issues.

How do you begin to develop awareness of workplace violence in your union and workplace? A prevention program needs to be drawn up. This program might include:

1) The most important step to take is to organize within the union to deal with the issue. Whatever preventive measures are adopted must be under the control of the workers. Otherwise, management can use the situation as a way to establish a system that may be used against the workers themselves. Written procedures, training programs, and other security techniques should all be developed and administered by the workers through an elected workers safety committee.

2) There must be clear refusal to tolerate violence and abuse in the workplace—this applies to coworkers, supervisors, and managers.

3) Incidents of violence should be immediately dealt with and accurately reported, regardless of whether physical injury has occurred. It's especially important to have union backing in cases where the police get involved.

4) The confidentiality of the person reporting the incident should be respected. No one should be forced to keep silent about workplace violence because of fearing retaliation from his or her attacker.

"The most important step to take is to organize within the union to deal with the issue. Whatever preventive measures are adopted must be under the control of the workers"

5) Paid leave time after an attack should be provided as necessary, including any medical treatment. Co-workers and supervisors should be aware of the mental and physical aftereffects of shock. Sufficient time should be allowed before the victim is expected to resume work duties.

These ideas and methods of organizing self-protection are useful inside the workplace. But we also have to organize outside the workplace in order to really address workplace violence. Our working conditions become better and safer if more services are provided to the people who require them. Contrarily, if the trends to strip the social safety net continue, our lives will generally become more brutal as thousands of people are thrown out of work and on to the streets with no welfare structures to assist them. Therefore, our struggle for safe working environments must become a political struggle