Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Social Worker Killed In The Line Of Duty -- What's Being Done?

UPDATE: For more information on the October 17, 2006 killing of Kentucky social worker Boni Frederick, go to this article.


You may have noticed in the last Weekly Toll the death of social worker Teri Zenner, who was stabbed to death while visiting a 17-year-old client at his home. Zenner's husband, Max, has turned his grief into action...
by fighting for more protection for social workers.

He wants them equipped with pagers that can call 911 and have global-positioning satellite capabilities. He wants to ensure case workers have clients' criminal records, and he wants to see mental health facilities reopened so there's adequate room for patients who should be hospitalized.
During my decade and a half as health and safety director for AFSCME, Zenner's story was all too familiar. Social service workers were the main victims of workplace violence long before the Post Office incidents of the 1990's brought the issue to everyone's attention. After a number of tragic deaths in the 1980's and 1990's, AFSCME, SEIU, AFT and a number of other unions convinced OSHA to issue guidelines to protect health care and social service workers against workplace violence which called for many of the measures that Zenner is calling for. CalOSHA had issued its own guidelines even earlier. OSHA later issued guidelines for late night retail workers and a fact sheet for taxi drivers.

Max Zenner puts his finger on some of the root causes:
Zenner thinks part of the problem is a lack of available beds for mental health patients who need hospitalization. Wiebe estimates Kansas has about 350 beds available, down from around 5,000 in the 1950s.

Wiebe said that Teri Zenner followed all protocol in her visit to Ellmaker and that there was nothing to indicate potential violence. The defendant has a prior conviction for carrying a concealed knife, though the Johnson County Mental Health Center does not routinely get background checks of patients.
There is no doubt that the deinstitutionalization wave of the 1980's led to more potentially violent patients on the streets with less oversight and attention, increasing the danger for overworked social workers who work with clients in much less structured adn protected settings.

For a while, during the 1990's, federal OSHA even used the General Duty Clause to cite several mental institutions and hospitals for not taking measures to protect employees against workplace violence. Federal OSHA no longer cites, and rarely even investigates workplace violence incidents. Some union activists have been considering petitioning OSHA for a standard.

That wouldn't have helped Zenner, however. She had the misfortune of being a public employee in the state of Kansas where public employees have no OSHA protection.

There's much more information on workplace violence on OSHA's Website. Check out ASFCME's guide to Preventing Workplace Violence.

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