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Violence in the workplace

November 1, 2012

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Does OSHA exclude acts of violence from its injury and illness recordkeeping regulations?

Responding is Lisa Neuberger, associate editor, J. J. Keller & Associates Inc., Neenah, WI.

On the surface, it seems logical to exclude injuries that result from workplace violence from the OSHA 300 log of work-related injuries and illnesses. After all, they don’t stem from any actual job responsibilities. But OSHA has a different take on the matter: If the injury is work-related, new, and meets one or more of the general recording criteria found in the injury and illness regulations at 29 CFR 1904, you must record it. This is true regardless of the level of control you as an employer had over the situation.

It all comes down to the phrase “work-related.” Although it doesn’t appear fair that OSHA would consider workplace acts such as one co-worker deliberately injuring another to be work-related, OSHA states in its “Recordkeeping Handbook” that “injuries and illnesses also occur at work that do not have a clear connection to a specific work activity, condition, or substance that is peculiar to the employment environment.” The agency lists events such as sexual assaults by a co-worker or other acts of violence perpetrated in the workplace as examples of incidents that may happen in the work environment but that the employer had no real control over. On these occasions, OSHA applies the “geographic presumption,” meaning incidents that occur in the work environment are work-related unless a specific exemption applies.

Violent acts can range in scope from one co-worker attacking another to terrorist attacks. Both situations are considered work-related for recordkeeping purposes. If injuries occur that result in death, days away from work, restricted work, job transfers, loss of consciousness, medical treatment beyond first aid or other significant injuries diagnosed by a physician, they must be recorded on your 300 log. You also must report to OSHA, within eight hours, the death of an employee or the hospitalizations of three or more employees from a work-related injury or illness.

At this point, you may be wondering about self-directed violence or attempted suicides that happen in the workplace. OSHA provides an exception in the regulations for cases related to intentional self-inflicted injuries. Of course, not all workplace violence is intentional. Sometimes horseplay gets out of hand and results in someone getting hurt. OSHA does not have an exception for these situations. In fact, the agency believes that by recording these injuries, employers may be alerted to possible problems with their disciplinary policies or supervision. One real-life case involved two supervisors who entered a trailer to change clothes and go home. They began with some “friendly banter” about how to beat the traffic and ended up coming to blows. One supervisor even struck the other with a knife. The supervisors’ employer argued that the injuries from this episode of “horseplay” should not be considered work-related.

OSHA disagreed. The incident took place in the work environment, and thus was work-related and recordable. There are steps you can take to reduce the chances of violent episodes occurring in your workplace. You can train workers to spot trouble before it occurs, increase security, and place locks on your doors, to name a few. Be aware that if an employee is hurt from a violent act on the job, OSHA will hold you accountable, at least for injury and illness recordkeeping purposes.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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