House Passes Bill to Curb Workplace Violence in Health Care and Social Services

 

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP November 22, 2019
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Employers in the health care and social services fields would have to take specific steps to prevent workplace violence under a bill the U.S. House of Representatives passed Nov. 21.

House members approved H.R. 1309 by a 251 to 158 vote, with Democrats voting for it and most Republicans voting against it. The measure would direct the Department of Labor to set an occupational safety and health standard, which would require certain employers to create a plan to protect employees from workplace violence. Specifically, covered employers would have to:

  • Promptly investigate workplace violence incidents, risks and hazards.
  • Train employees who could be exposed to workplace violence.
  • Maintain certain records.
  • Prohibit discrimination and retaliation against employees who report workplace violence incidents and concerns.

The Republican-controlled Senate will now consider H.R. 1309, but it isn't expected to pass. The bill "stands no chance of becoming law," said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala.

Support for the Bill

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., the bill's sponsor, said H.R. 1309 is "an important milestone in what has been a seven-year process of getting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] to effectively act to protect the health care and social service workforce from skyrocketing rates of violence."

Nurses, doctors, social workers, emergency medical technicians and other health care professionals are more likely to be victims of on-the-job violence than workers in any other sector, he said, noting that violent patients sometimes kick, hit, choke and spit at the professionals who assist them. Some acts of violence are even fatal.

House Democrats shared stories about health care and emergency workers who were severely injured or died from workplace violence. "I ask that you remember and honor Pamela Knight," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. Knight worked for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services as a child protection specialist and was "brutally beaten" while trying to take a 2-year-old child into protective custody from an abusive father. She ultimately died from her injuries.

Under H.R. 1309, OSHA would have a year to develop an interim standard and 42 months to rollout a final standard. The final rule would be subject to the formal rulemaking process and would be open to public comment.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all requirement," Courtney said. Covered employers, such as hospitals and psychiatric facilities, would have to develop a workplace-violence-prevention plan tailored to the specific conditions and hazards present at their workplace and would have to train staff on how to identify high-risk patients, share the information with co-workers, and de-escalate threats.

"We know these measures work and the problem is there is no consistent, enforceable standard to ensure their application—and that's precisely what this bill does," Courtney said.

Opposition to Bill

Critics of the bill said that OSHA already requires employers to take specific steps to protect employees and provide a safe work environment.

Republican House members expressed concerns about the way the bill was drafted. "All of us here today, regardless of our political beliefs, appreciate the hard work and empathy that health care workers and community caregivers demonstrate every single day on the job," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.  
She said that health care and social workers deserve workplace protections, but H.R. 1309 was "rushed and ill-conceived."

"Our health care workers and caregivers deserve a thoroughly vetted and researched solution that protects them in the workplace, but H.R. 1309 badly fails to deliver on that front," Foxx said.

Byrne noted that Republicans and Democrats agree that protecting workers from violence is a policy priority. "American workers should be kept out of harm's way on the job so they can return home to their families every day healthy and safe," he said.

He believes "impactful legislation" is possible but agreed with Foxx that the current proposal "is the wrong approach."

Byrne proposed an amendment recognizing that OSHA is currently working on a rule that addresses workplace violence. "This amendment would ensure that the regulated community has an opportunity to provide meaningful comments on the workplace violence prevention standard, which will inform an effective and final regulation before the agency begins enforcement," he said.

The amendment would also require OSHA to take certain steps before proceeding with the rulemaking process.

Courtney argued that the amendment "guts the bill." He is worried that if Congress doesn't set a deadline for implementing standards, then nothing will happen. 

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