June 21, 1995

Workplace violence may be preventable, L&I study says

OLYMPIA - Workers in just a few occupations face the highest risk for violence in the workplace, a new study by the Department of Labor & Industries concludes.

"While workplace violence is a serious problem, this study indicates most events are not random, and many may be preventable," said L&I Director Mark O. Brown. "Employers in the high-risk industries need to get focused around this issue and take appropriate steps to protect their workers."

The study, based on departmental injury and illness data for 1992, determined that more than 88 percent of injuries stemming from workplace violence occur in "predictable work environments" that are known to be high risk.

The L&I report identifies 14 industry classifications in which workers are more at risk of violence than all other industries. Included in the study was a comparison of trends in workers' compensation claims between 1988 and 1992, which showed a 35 percent increase in assault and violence-related claims between the two years. However, the study does not state whether the climb was due to more actual incidents. Contributing factors for the increase could be better awareness and improved reporting of workplace violence claims.

Thirteen deaths in the state were related to assaults and violent acts in 1992, most in workplaces known to be at high risk: grocery stores, liquor stores, restaurants, fast-food establishments, lounges, and transit vehicles. That's 13 percent of the state's 97 occupational fatalities that year, compared to 20 percent at the national level (6,083 deaths) attributable to violent acts.

Washington workers in the most danger are those in social and health services, especially employees who work with physically or mentally impaired students, clients or patients. More nursing aids, health aids, health technicians, social workers and nurses were assaulted on the job in 1992 than police officers or jailers, the study shows.

One of every 84 workers in the social and health services industry filed a violence-related claim for compensation with the department in 1992. One of every 112 police and correctional workers filed a workplace violence-related claim with L&I that year. Overall, one of every 526 Washington workers insured by L&I filed a claim related to workplace violence in the study year.

The research was based both on workers' compensation claims filed with the department and on an annual survey of 10,000 Washington worksites conducted for the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The report's author is Dr. Nancy Nelson, an epidemiologist with L&I's Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) program.

A total of 2,395 claims, or about 1.4 percent of the 171,400 claims processed by Labor & Industries in the study year, were related to assaults or violent acts. Seventeen percent of the violence in 1992 occurred in workplaces at risk of violence from robbery, especially where employees handle cash or work alone.

Dr. Joel Kaufman, acting manager of the SHARP program, said while the study affirms that we live in a violent society, it also shows that most people are not at high risk for violent encounters at work. Kaufman said the study is valuable because it helps identify where prevention efforts should be focused.

The study is one of the most comprehensive of its kind ever prepared in the nation.

The study did suggest that more employee training may help. Violence-related claims at food stores dropped in 1992 after a new regulation went into effect that required all employers operating late night retail establishments to offer crime prevention training to their employees, provide adequate lighting levels and assure a clear view of cash registers from the street and limited access to safes and cash. The drop was from 23 claims per 10,000 workers in 1988 to 15 per 10,000 workers in 1992.

"This means the new law might already be making a difference in preventing injuries," Kaufman said.

Violence in Washington Workplaces, 1992, is available from SHARP by calling 360-902-5669, writing P.O. Box 44330, Olympia, WA 98504-4330.

Meanwhile, Labor & Industries has created a work group that will develop guidelines and training for employers to prevent workplace violence from happening at their companies. The work group currently consists of L&I staff, but will be expanding to a task force, with many members representing the targeted industries.

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