Business as usual at Juvenile Services?

August 24, 2010

The report from Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH), this state's workplace safety enforcement agency, cites the Department of Juvenile Services for five serious safety violations in the aftermath of Ms. Hannah Wheeling's murder at the hand of one of her students ("Employees broke safety protocol the day teacher was killed," Aug. 21). Yet the recommendations to DJS might as well be stamped "Keep Up Business as Usual".

The MOSH report cites the Department of Juvenile Services' existing safety protocols as sufficient to prevent future homicides of staff by residents when they are followed. The only problem is that DJS can't figure out how to follow its own safety protocols. Furthermore, DJS's approach of blaming the co-workers is one of the oldest and most misguided responses, usually signifying either gross ignorance or blatant unwillingness to improve safety.

As we said in a letter to the editor published shortly after Ms. Wheeling's death (February, 2010) the data on workplace violence are crystal clear. Compared to those in other occupations, social services workers, including teachers of troubled youth along with those who work in other caring professions such as mental health and healthcare, 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, it is dangerously clear that current Maryland law is not adequate to protect employees from violence at work.

A 2006 federal survey of American workplaces reveals that most are woefully unprepared to deal with issues of violence toward workers. Even more unsettling is that most employers, like DJS, make very few changes even after a serious violence incident has occurred. Our experience of evaluating workplace violence programs in several states and many facilities is that DJS has a long way to go to create a culture of safety that will truly prevent homicides of state employees.

What does it take to prevent workplace violence? It takes strong state laws that require the development of a comprehensive, facility-specific, workplace violence prevention program. This program should involve clear policies, a thorough risk assessment, adequate staffing and security resources, employee training, and ongoing recordkeeping and monitoring. Frontline workers, as well as top managers, need to be directly involved in developing such programs. State laws in California, Washington state, New York and New Jersey require such efforts; Maryland legislators should promptly consider enacting similar regulations. In the interim, MOSH could require these comprehensive safety efforts as part of DJS's general duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

If we are to honor Ms. Wheeling's memory and prevent the tragic loss of irreplaceable teachers, nurses and social workers, Maryland must require employers (including the state) to provide strong workplace violence prevention programs.

Kathleen M. McPhaul, PhD, MPH, RN

Jane Lipscomb, PhD, RN, FAAN

Matthew London, MS

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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