The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that more than two million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year.  In fact, homicide currently ranks as the fourth-leading cause of workplace fatalities in the United States.  Recently, a psychiatric clinic associated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) unexpectedly, and unfortunately, became involved in these statistics.

A few weeks ago, on March 8, 2012, a lone gunman entered one of UPMC’s buildings and opened fire, killing one person and causing 5 others – all employees of the clinic – to sustain serious injuries before police killed the gunman.  The employer is now faced with an investigation by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) into what it could have done to prevent this tragedy and what it must do in the future to prevent any future violence at its facilities.

Sadly, this clinic is not alone.  Workplace violence has become such a common cause of occupational injury and fatality that OSHA recently announced a new directive to protect employees from violence at work.  Certain industries in particular – including retail, healthcare, and social services – bear the brunt of most workplace violence and are likely to be frequent targets for the recent OSHA directives regarding the prevention of workplace violence.

OSHA has recommended that employers look at both administrative and engineering controls to make their workplaces safer.  Administrative controls include consideration of work hours and local trends in crime that might provide some clues as to when, where, or how violence is likely to occur at a particular facility.  Likewise, retaining trained safety personnel could be an administrative control implemented to minimize workplace violence.  Engineering controls include physical safety provisions like electronic door locks, safety partitions, and surveillance equipment.  OSHA naturally recommends that reporting and training components be made a part of any workplace safety program, as well.

It is important for employers to be aware that future OSHA inspections could likely include a review of programs meant to stem workplace violence.  It is also important to note that instances of workplace violence are the source of compensable workers’ compensation injuries.  In some states, workers just observing an act of violence in the workplace are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for any psychiatric impacts such events can trigger.  And, in cases where employers had experienced prior acts of violence at their facilities and failed to take steps to control future occurrences, civil liability can be assigned to the employer if its employees are subsequently injured.

Undeniably for UMPC – at the terrible expense of 7 dead individuals – this risk of future liability has now grown.  Lessons can and should be learned for all employers as a consequence of this unfortunate tragedy.

James "Mac" Heslep defends employers against claims of work-related injury and illness. His practice began with a focus on the defense of state workers’ compensation claims. Since 2004, he has defended more than 2,000 protests before the West Virginia Workers’ Compensation Office of Judges.
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