If a bright triangular slip-and-fall sign is the first picture that pops into your head when thinking about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), you probably connect OSHA to safety. And you’d be right.
Or maybe your recognition of OSHA is broadly connected to the General Duty Clause (Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act) that requires “…employers provide workplaces free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Right again. OSHA is about protecting workers from all workplace hazards.
You would also be correct to point out that OSHA has no specific standard on the prevention of workplace violence. So you may be surprised to learn that OSHA and the OSH Act factor into our guidance on workplace violence prevention programs.
The reality is that every organization that comes to us for workforce risk management advisory support is subject to a variety of OSHA regulations and consensus standards. And a key part of that reality in our line of work is that OSHA may issue citations to employers who fail to provide employees with adequate safeguards against workplace violence.
THERE’S NO DECODER RING FOR OSHA STANDARDS AND REGULATIONS
We realize it’s no easy task to weed your way through an array of numbered regulatory codes and directives. Each section leads you through a complicated maze of subsections and links. Adding to the challenge is discovering where violence prevention (a recognized occupational hazard) fits within the broad and finite responsibilities of employers. That’s where we come in.
Part of our job is to regularly monitor the changing scope of OSHA standards, enforcement directives and voluntary recommendations that connect safety and health to workplace violence prevention. Before I share an overview of essential OSHA connection points, I thought it would be helpful to briefly capture the origins and purpose of the OSH Act and its connected regulatory and research bodies.
IT’S ABOUT PROTECTING WORKERS
When President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (29 CFR § 671) in 1970, it marked the first time that all employers in the U.S. had the legal responsibility to provide a safe, healthful workplace for employees.
The OSH Act simultaneously mandated the establishment of two government entities with separate but complementary missions:
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) – OSHA is a regulatory and legal enforcement agency whose mission is to assure safe and healthful working conditions by setting and enforcing protective standards and by providing outreach and assistance. OSHA has the power to levy fines and take legal actions against employers who fail to protect worker safety and rights.
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), governed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – NIOSH’s authority under the OSH Act is to function as a research and education institution. Unlike its OSH Act counterpart, NIOSH does not have the regulatory or legal enforcement authority of OSHA. Like OSHA, NIOSH is recognized as a world leader in helping to prevent work-related harm.
The OSH Act applies to employers either directly through Federal OSHA or through an OSHA-approved state program. Some states have directives that require or recommend extra steps to prevent workplace violence. OSHA Oregon and OSHA California, for example, have regulations and model programs with extensive guidance that can be used to inform programs in any location.
It’s important to note that OSHA’s primary role is to be an advocate for employees, and the OSH Act does not provide for the issuance of citations or the proposal of penalties against employees. Employers take responsibility for employee compliance with the standards.
It’s also important to recognize that OSHA’s parent agency, the DOL, actively promotes workers’ rights with a strong emphasis on whistleblower protections. Workers today are more informed about the link between workplace culture, safety and well-being. With the support of OSHA, DOL and others, an increasing number of workers are willing to file complaints against employers of workplace violence risks or reported injuries resulting from actual workplace violence.
LEVERAGING OSHA GUIDELINES, RECOMMENDATIONS AND RESEARCH SUPPORTING PROACTIVE PREVENTION PROGRAMS
Establishing workplace violence prevention programs is fundamental to our mission in protecting people by creating safer workplaces. Workplace violence is recognized as an occupational hazard that, like other safety issues, can be mitigated if employers take the right protective measures. Over the past 20 years, OSHA and NIOSH have helped to identify evidence-based practices that help prevent workplace violence. That’s why we factor their guidance and recommendations into our development of best-in-class programs.
Employers do not have to follow OSHA’s guidelines and recommendations. But employers that follow them can use their compliance to defend against potential claims that they breached the General Duty clause.
OSHA DIRECTIVE ON INVESTIGATING AND INSPECTING WORKPLACE VIOLENCE INCIDENTS
In the absence of a federal standard, OSHA enhanced its efforts to address the growing problem of workplace violence by issuing “Enforcement Procedures for Investigating or Inspecting Workplace Violence Incidents.” The directive for OSHA field offices establishes procedures for reviewing incidents of workplace violence, especially at worksites in industries considered at high risk for workplace violence incidents. I view OSHA’s decision to design a specific inspection protocol for workplace violence as evidence that it is prioritizing and advancing its efforts in addressing violence as a significant hazard to workforce safety and health.
OSHA uses the NIOSH definition of workplace violence in the directive: “Workplace violence is the act or threat of violence, ranging from verbal abuse to physical assaults directed toward persons at work or on duty. The impact of workplace violence can range from psychological issues to physical injury, or even death.”
PROTECTING WORKERS BY CREATING SAFER WORKPLACES
The pace of change in our current world of work is unsurpassed. Employees are more aware of their rights and more willing to leave unhealthy, unsafe work environments.
Many organizational leaders aren’t aware of the changing, cross-related impacts of OSHA and other legislative standards – recommendations that protect workers and drive workplace safety, health, security and violence prevention priorities.
In addition, interpretations and enforcement policies are always changing, and organizations need to be aware of current administrative interpretations and decisions by review commissions and the courts.
We can help.
Whether it’s an urgent threat concern, a standalone priority or a holistic safety and health system initiative, we help organizations realize their full potential in violence prevention and threat management. Our flexible and responsive framework allows us to step in with expert advisory when and where clients need support across the breadth of our workforce risk management services. Contact us if you have any questions, and we’ll be in touch.