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New California OSHA Workplace Violence Standard for Healthcare Workers

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Sacramento, CA: There is little doubt that healthcare workers, second only perhaps to police officers, are amongst the highest groups of workers potentially exposed to workplace violence. Police have to worry about aggressiveness from criminals and suspects. For the healthcare worker, aggressiveness in the workplace can originate with patients showing aggression towards their healthcare provider. For 2017, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) is addressing this head-on with new guidelines which could come into effect as early as January.

What this means for the healthcare worker, is that employers will now have strict guidance with regard to minimizing, and even mitigating aggression and violence in the workplace. At the same time, however, some of the provisions are reported to be broad in nature and subject to interpretation. For the healthcare worker in the state of California, an employer’s due diligence (or lack thereof) with regard to enforcing the new rules could provide the basis for a California OSHA lawsuit amidst allegations the employer dropped the ball in enforcing the new guidelines.

Federally, OSHA has only broad guidelines with no specific standard of guidance with regard to workplace violence and aggression – especially for hospitals. California is reported to be the first state to bring in specific guidelines, through Cal/OSHA, for dealing with and preventing aggression and violence directed towards healthcare workers in hospitals.

The new California OSHA standard was not without pushback from hospitals. It has been reported that two labor unions representing healthcare workers in California lobbied the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to adopt a new standard for specific protection against violence in the workplace. However, the California Hospital Association (CHA) opposed the standard (the CHA represents more than 400 hospitals in the state).

There was no reason given as to why the CHA opposed the standard. However it is presumed the hospitals took exception to broad terms used to reference “health care facilities” without more specific language suggesting which facilities, specifically, are covered by the standard. Thus, there could be broad interpretations employed. Same goes for the broad definitions employed for workplace violence, and threats of violence. The standard does specify aggression and violent behavior towards healthcare workers on the part of patients, visitors, fellow employees, non-facility workers, or anyone who might have had a personal relationship with a healthcare worker. However, specifics with regard to the acts, and types of aggression or violence, are described as overly broad.

The Cal/OSHA standard puts the onus on the employer to implement protocols and procedures, design and provide training for employees, and provide whatever equipment is deemed appropriate and necessary in order to mitigate workplace violence. However, the standard is short on specifics, leaving the employer to interpret the standard according to the employer’s own point of view and reference.

This could provide a challenge for both the employer, as well as the litigant should a healthcare worker file a California OSHA lawsuit citing failure to maintain a standard that has a number of ill-defined, moving parts.

There doesn’t appear much time for revising the Cal/OSHA standard, as speculation suggests it could be enacted as early as January. It is also expected that other states will use the California OSHA standard for workplace violence against healthcare workers as a template for their own governance with regard to violence, threats of violence and / or acts of aggression against healthcare workers.

Whether or not the standard will be amended going forward remains to be seen.

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