Organized 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.
The 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 healthcare 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.
Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.