Cheltenham death is workplace violence

February 22, 2010

"How does this happen to an educator on state property?" a Baltimore County legislator was quoted as asking about Hannah Wheeler, Maryland's latest victim of workplace violence ("Cheltenham death inquiry involves teen," Feb. 20).

The data on workplace violence, which is defined as being threatened or assaulted while at work, are crystal clear. Compared to those in other occupations, social services workers, including teachers of troubled youth and with those who work in professions such as mental health and health care, are disproportionately hurt by violence and assault from their students or patients. Furthermore, being a public sector employee dramatically increases that risk.

In spite of the disturbing number of occupational homicides and assaults in social services workplaces, Maryland law does not require employers to protect staff from violence at work. What does it take to prevent workplace violence? It takes strong state laws requiring adequate staffing and security resources, employee training and regular tracking and recordkeeping. At a minimum, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) must do a thorough investigation and require these safety practices at Cheltenham and all state youth detention facilities.

We know that workplace violence is preventable, as has been demonstrated in California, Washington, New York and New Jersey, states that have strong workplace violence regulations. If we are to honor Ms. Wheeler's memory and prevent the tragic loss of irreplaceable teachers, psychiatrists and social workers, Maryland must require employers (including the state) to provide strong workplace violence prevention programs.

Kathleen M. McPhaul, Jane Lipscomb and Matthew London, Baltimore

The writers are workplace violence intervention researchers at the University of Maryland Work and Health Research Center in the School of Nursing.

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