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September 18, 1997

Assaults plague social services, health-care occupations

TUMWATER - Social workers, nursing aides and orderlies remain the most likely victims of assault in the workplace, new research by the Department of Labor & Industries concludes.

A study released today identifies occupations and industries at greatest risk of injury from workplace violence, describes recent trends in the state and suggests where preventive effort might best be targeted.

"The threat of violence is very real for many Washington workers," said L&I Director Gary Moore. More than 2,500 workers were kicked, bitten, beaten, stabbed or shot last year while on the job."

"Many of these violent incidents could have been prevented by the employer and/or the worker. We are making progress in preventing workplace violence, but we all need to do more."

L&I researchers - and national studies - say prevention should be focused on social services and health services.

"People view police and security work as high-risk occupations - and they are - yet the data show social workers, nursing aides and orderlies are assaulted more often and in greater numbers," said Barbara Silverstein, Ph.D., research director for L&I's Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) program.

Workers' compensation data showed an average of 2,529 claims related to assaults and violence each year from 1992 through 1995. For the entire period, the cost of these claims approached $34 million.

Social services and health services accounted for 51% of assault-related claims. Psychiatric hospitals had the highest rate of assault of any industry, averaging 90 injuries per 1,000 workers over the four-year period.

Overall decrease noted

The study also showed an 18% decrease in the overall rate of assault-related claims between 1992 and 1995. There were two notable exceptions to the downward trend:

  • While the rate of assault for private sector workers is heading down, the rate for state government workers appears to be rising. A large proportion of employees who work with patients and distressed clients are employed in state government.
  • The rate of assault in human resource programs doubled during the study period. This industry includes administration of income maintenance, child welfare, unemployment insurance, workers' compensation and medical assistance programs.

Because national data gathered through the Bureau of Labor Statistics exclude public sector businesses, Washington's overall rate for assaults cannot be compared to the national average. However, Washington's private sector had a lower proportion of assault-related injuries than the national average.

Assaults not random

The findings in Violence in Washington Workplaces, 1992-1995 confirm an earlier L&I study that showed most injuries from assault occur in "predictable work environments" known to be high risk.

"Evidence from research counters the notion that violence on the job is a random event," Silverstein said. "The risks can be reduced by taking steps to assess and address hazards and by training staff to recognize and respond appropriately to warning signs."

"Labor & Industries will be working with business and labor to help protect Washington workers from attacks. We will be providing free training for employers and workers and making available a guidebook for employers to use in preventing workplace violence," Moore said.

Fatalities below national average

In Washington, homicide accounts for fewer workplace fatalities than the national average. Over the four-year survey period, homicide ranked as the fourth-leading cause of workplace fatalities (10% of all fatalities); nationally homicide ranked second (16.9%).

While non-fatal assaults primarily occur when employees work with patients and distressed clients, strangers commit the majority of homicides in the workplace. In 1995, for example, eight of 11 homicides were committed by persons unknown to the victim, and five of the eight occurred during robberies.

Sources of data

The study drew data from workers' compensation claims records at the Washington Department of Labor & Industries, the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries produced by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, also produced by BLS. Michael Foley, an economist with L&I's SHARP program, authored the study.

Violence in Washington Workplaces, 1992-1995 is online at L&I's web site. To request a copy of the study, call 1-888-66-SHARP.

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For media information, contact: 
Cheryl Moore, L&I, 360-902-5414, chem235@lni.wa.gov

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