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“Sitting Ducks” and “Walking Targets”: Risking Life on the Job

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Image: Adam KaderWe all know the phrase “going postal,” right?  It’s when someone becomes extremely angry to the point of become violent, usually in the context of work.  It came about in response to a number of horrific incidents of violence committed by postal workers in the 1980s and ’90s.*

But this past week the Chicago Tribune ran a revealing story about the risks of violence posed to postal workers just doing their jobs.  In a place like Chicago, the workplace for mail carriers–the outdoors–presents natural health and safety risks, such as heat illness.  Being in Chicago, extreme weather conditions can be expected and prepared for.  But when routes run through high-crime areas, carriers’ work can become life-endangering from human factors of violence.

In the Tribune story, mail carrier Khalalisa Norris tells her story of being nearly gunned-down in a drive-by shooting (watch a video here).  Rodney Nelson, another mail carrier, describes being taken into an alley and held at gunpoint to hand over his mail bag.  And Berenda Walker was assaulted while organizing mail in her truck.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that an average of 1.7 million people were victims of violent crime while working or on duty in the United States each year from 1993 through 1999 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that “Violence in the workplace is a serious safety and health issue. Its most extreme form, homicide, is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 521 workplace homicides in the preliminary count of 2009 in the United States, out of a total of 4,349 fatal work injuries.”  (For more information, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries summary).

More than simply a neighborhood safety story, the Tribune article shows that this is a workers’ rights issue.  Mail carriers have had to battle management to be transferred to other routes after being the victim of a crime.  And there is currently no policy that requires supervisors to inform carriers when co-workers are robbed or assaulted.   According to the Tribune, the carrier’s union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, (NALC) “is pushing for a better system of reporting incidents, more flexibility for carriers who have experienced violence, and a system that would notify all carriers after an assault, robbery or shooting.”

The story shows how local residents are not the only victims of neighborhood violence.  Norris reports that now some of the residents on her route will stay on their porches until she finishes delivery on that block, to ensure her safety.  This suggests the need for a coordinated effort between local community groups and worker organizations like the NALC.

* Despite this spate of tragedies, research has shown the phrase “going postal” to be unwarranted: “Researchers have found that the homicide rates per 100,000 workers at postal facilities were lower than at other workplaces. In major industries, the highest rate of 2.1 homicides per 100,000 workers was in retail. The next highest rate of 1.66 was in public administration, which includes police officers. The homicide rate for postal workers was 0.26 per 100,000.”

This blog originally appeared in Dignity at Work on August 21, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Adam Kader is the Worker Center Director at Arise Chicago.


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Workplace Violence Is Not Part of the Job – A Nursing Phenomenon

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Image: Richard NegriDeborah Bonn, the director of the Nurse Alliance of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, recently sent an email to more than 500 SEIU nurses about the recent cluster of tragic events facing nurses around the country. These events put a spotlight on the extent of violence against nurses and other healthcare workers.

The problem is that even though these violent acts were widely reported, they have unfortunately since fallen off the radar.

In October 2010, there were two tragic news items originating in the San Francisco Bay area.

  • A psychiatric technician, Donna Gross, was killed on the job at Napa State Hospital. A mentally ill patient at the facility allegedly strangled her to death.
  • Two days after Ms. Gross was killed, Cynthia Palomata, a nurse at the Contra Costa County jail, was killed by a violent inmate who lost control and beat her with a lamp.

In Bonn’s letter to RNs, she wrote,

“Unfortunately, workplace violence won’t end by media attention alone…we should NOT BE OK with going to work knowing there’s a real possibility of getting hurt, traumatized or killed.”

Bonn says that nurses need to bring home the seriousness of workplace violence by telling their stories. As a nurse and union leader, she agreed to share her story with the public.

During my in-hospital nursing career, I was stabbed in the back with a fork by a patient, suffering from DT hallucination, who was hiding behind a door while doing hourly rounds on the night shift.

I’ve also been kneed in the chest by a belligerent patient – an incident which left me in severe pain. After a chest X-ray that was ordered by my private physician because the hospital doctor did not feel one was warranted, I learned my ribs were just bruised from the patient’s attack.

If this is not enough to convince you we need change, I can tell you about the time I was stabbed in the arm with a needle by an elderly demented patient, who grabbed the needle from me after I had given her insulin.

There was also the time I got kicked so hard by a patient that I was thrown against the wall and knocked unconscious to the floor – that was more than just a bad day on the job!

Is this what nursing has become? Was I supposed to just accept these acts of workplace violence as a ‘hazard of the job’ and expect nothing would change?

Believe me, I’ve endured many other attacks in my career besides the ones I describe here. In each case, the facility gave me the impression that this was just part of the job. The facility, in not so many words, told me that we are responsible for the patients and therefore, I was responsible for all these events!

How can we make this workplace violence stop?

For one, we need to keep it on our radar long after the traditional mainstream news drops the story.

Second, we need to hear from nurses everywhere with what their experiences have been – and what they think is the remedy to fix the issue.

SEIU has set up a form for nurses to share their experience so that we can then share their stories with others.

If you’re a Registered Nurse, tell us about your experiences with violence on the job in your hospital or care facilities at http://nursealliance.onlineactions.org/wpv

*This blog originally appeared in SEIU Blog on Feb 2, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.


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We Need to Combat Workplace Violence

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Image: Dick MeisterOrganized labor and its allies are rightly alarmed over the high incidence of on-the-job accidents that have killed or maimed many thousands of workers. But they haven’t forgotten – nor should we forget – the on-the-job violence that also afflicts many thousands.

Consider this: Every year, almost two million American men and women are the victims of violent crime at their workplaces. That often forces the victims to stay off work for a week or more and costs their employers more than $60 billion a year in lost productivity.

These crimes are the tenth leading cause of all workplace injuries. They range from murder to verbal or written abuse and threatening behavior and harassment, including bullying by employers and supervisors.

Women have been particularly victimized. At least 30,000 a year are raped or otherwise sexually assaulted while on the job. The actual total is undoubtedly much higher, since it’s estimated that only about one-fourth of such crimes are reported to the police.

Estimates are that more than 900,000 of all on-the-job crimes go unreported yearly, including a large percentage of what’s thought to be some 13,000 cases annually that involve boyfriends or husbands attacking women at their workplaces.

The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents many of the victimized workers, cites that as an example of the job violence problem that is often distorted by media coverage that “would lead us to believe that most workplace violence involves worker against worker situations.”

The union says that has focused many employers “on identifying troubled employees or disgruntled workers who might turn into violent predators at a moment’s notice. But in fact, 62 percent of all violence at worksites is caused by outsiders.”

As you might expect, those most vulnerable to the violence are workers who exchange money with the public, deliver passengers, goods or services, work alone or in small groups during late night or early morning hours in high-crime areas or wherever they have extensive contact with the public.

That includes police, security guards, water meter readers and other utility workers, telephone and cable TV installers, letter carriers, taxi drivers, flight attendants, probation officers and teachers. Convenience store clerks and other retail workers account for fully one-fifth of the victims.

The American Federation of Teachers is so concerned that it has provided each of its 1.4 million members a $100,000 life insurance policy payable if the teacher dies as the result of workplace violence.

The major violence victims also include health care and social service workers such as visiting nurses, and employees of nursing homes, psychiatric facilities and prisons. They suffer two-thirds of all physical assaults. Many of the victims regularly deal with volatile, abusive and dangerous clients, often alone because of the understaffing that’s become all too common.

It could get even worse, at least for some workers. The RWDSU warns that today’s troubled economic times create additional threats. The danger is especially great for retail workers whose stores are likely to face increased incidents of theft, some involving gun-wielding robbers.

The RWDSU and other unions have been pushing for recognition of workplace violence as an occupational as well as criminal justice issue. That would put it under the purview of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state job safety agencies.

The federal and state agencies could then issue enforceable regulations designed to lessen the on-the-job dangers of violence, as they do for other hazardous working conditions. A few states do that already, but only for a very limited number of industries.

OSHA has issued guidelines for workers in late-night retail jobs, cab drivers and some health care workers, but the guidelines are strictly voluntary. Although the unions’ top priority is for legally binding regulations, they also are pressing employers to meanwhile voluntarily implement violence-prevention programs.

Currently, only about one-fourth of them have such programs or any guidelines at all. The RWDSU’s Health and Safety Department is offering to help the other employers develop programs.

We have federal and state standards, laws and regulations designed to protect working Americans from many of the serious on-the-job hazards they face daily. Yet we have generally failed to lay down firm guidelines for protecting workers from the workplace violence that’s one of the most dangerous hazards of all.

*This post originally appeared in Truth Out on February 11, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Dick Meister is a former labor correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle and has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a newspaper, radio, television and online reporter, editor and commentator.


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