Cheltenham murder shows threat of workplace violence

February 23, 2010

The brutal murder of Hannah Wheeling, a teacher and counselor at the Cheltenham Youth Facility, is a very real tragedy, for her family, her co-workers, her students and clients, and for our entire community. It is a loss that deeply disturbs us as a union of professionals in state government because Ms. Wheeling's violent death occurred at her workplace.

Hannah Wheeling was a dedicated teacher and public servant. According to co-workers and family, she worked long hours on lesson plans. Few teachers with her experience seek out the work that she did, working with troubled youth in correctional facilities. Must we accept workplace violence as part of our jobs as public servants?

The Maryland Professional Employees Council (MPEC), which represents teachers at Cheltenham as well as professional employees in state government, believes that the answer is no. Research on workplace violence over the years shows that work related assaults and fatalities are, for the most part, preventable. There are demonstrated comprehensive work place violence prevention programs that have been shown to drastically reduce the rates of assault, injury and death. Had such a program been in place at her facility, perhaps Ms. Wheeling's life may have been spared. Our state and federal laws have been largely silent on mandating these workplace violence prevention programs, and now is the time to step up the regulatory agenda on workplace violence.

The Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MOSH) may be able to start an investigation on Ms. Wheeling's case even in the absence of a workplace violence standard.

Indeed Maryland's law on occupational safety and health provides that "each employer shall provide each employee with a place of employment that [is] safe and healthful and free from each recognized hazard that is causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm."

Workplace violence is a well-recognized hazard in facilities such as these and has been studied by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and noted academic researchers for a number of years.

Many state employees work in state facilities with clients or inmates with a history of mental illness or with serious behavior problems, some potentially violent. No one should be expected to work in an unsafe situation or where they are subject to assault or loss of life.

There is one thing we do know that is essential: Front line employees and their union representatives must be fully involved in the planning, development and implementation of programs to prevent workplace violence.

On behalf of the Maryland Professional Employees Council (MPEC), I am calling on the administration of the Cheltenham Youth Facility and the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services to work with us on the development of a workplace violence prevention program. We are also asking that MOSH conduct a full investigation into this tragic loss of life to see if there is evidence of a violation of our state and federal safety laws.

We are asking that MOSH partner with the administration and our union to develop programs with the goal of stopping workplace violence.

We know that the administration, co-workers, and our union wish to honor the life of Hannah Wheeling. Her lifelong work and exemplary service to children and our community should be celebrated and memorialized. One of the best ways that we can honor and remember her is to re-dedicate ourselves to doing all we can to stop workplace violence in the future.

George Myers, Baltimore

The writer is president of the Maryland Professional Employees Council.

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