Thursday, May 11, 2006

Yellow signs and red tape : New York's Workplace Violence Prevention Program?

Almost 14 years ago I received news that four AFSCME members, Phyllis Caslin, Florence A. Pike, DeniseVan Amburg and Nancy J. Wheeler, child welfare workers in the Schuyler County (NY) Department of Social Services, had been shot to death in their office by a man unhappy about being forced to make child support payments. Miller was able to walk into an unlocked back entrance, and climbed the stairs to their office.
The four women and their killer died on Thursday morning, when 50-year-old John T. Miller walked into the Schuyler County offices with a 9-millimeter handgun and shot one after the other, pausing once to tell a woman working in a nearby office that she could leave. Afterward, he calmly told deputies that he had "hurt everyone I came here to hurt." Then he held the gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger.
But that wasn't the first time that poor building security put workers at risk:
Marc Yerton remembers the day more than 20 years ago when a couple walked into the Chenango County Office Building and took a group of workers hostage in a day-long siege.

"I was here in the early 1980s when two people entered the building with guns and Molotov cocktails and took 22 people hostage,” said Yerton, a probation supervisor and 26-year employee.
Since that time, we've seen significant advancements made in an effort to protect employees from workplace violence. In 1997, federal OSHA issued guidelines to assist health care and social service workers to prevent workplace violence. Among the measures in the guidelines is one that recommends "Lock all unused doors to limit access, in accordance with local fire codes."

But according to an article in The Work Force, a publication of the Civil Service Employees Association of New York, AFSCME Local 1000 (no link), things haven't changed that much, at least in Chanango County:
The takeover didn’t result in any increased building security. “Nothing happened after that,” he said. “The county didn’t change its policies at all.”
CSEA Chenango County Local President Jerry Sayles, a county Highway Department employee, said the building has at least six unlocked, unguarded entrances.

The only sign of security at these entrances is literally a yellow sign on the doors noting that weapons are prohibited in the building. Other than a metal detector and deputy in the family court area, Sayles said, “it’s pretty much wide open.”

Sayles said the union has tried to get the county to increase security at the building and other county facilities, but county officials have been unwilling to act.

“In our labor–management meetings, we’ve asked for increased security, but they’ve been unwilling to do more,” Sayles said. “Our fear is that somebody could walk in with a weapon and not be stopped or even slowed down. Somebody could be hurt or killed.”


Yerton said people regularly joke about his office’s only security measure — a piece of red tape on the floor that probationers and other visitors to his office are supposed to stay behind. He said the signs on the building’s outside doors that prohibit weapons are equally ineffective.

“It’s a joke, the same as our red tape,” he said. “It’s the only measure we have — a piece of tape on the floor. We take care of each other — that’s the only real security we have.”

New York public employee have waited long enough to feel safe. CSEA, the New York Public Employee Federation and other public employees unions in New York are running a Secure Worksites Now! campaign that is supporting the Worksite Security Act (S.6441; A.9691) in the New York State Legislature. The law would require public employers with more than 20 employees to assess risk and develop a plan of action to prevent potential workplace violence. The bill would also establish a complaint procedure for workers to call attention to the potential for violence. CSEA trained 700 safety and health activists at the end of last month at the union's statewide Safety and Health Conference in Lake Placid at the end of the month. PEF is running regular trainings for its members as well.

Last week NY public employees rallied in front of the state capitol in support of the legislation. Last year, NY Governor George Pataki vetoed similar legislation that had been overwhelmingly approved by both houses of the legislature, citing "technical flaws."

CSEA and PEF held a press conference earlier this week where members who had been victims of workplace violence spoke of being attacked -- and of not being taken seriously afterwards:
"I was attacked by a patient while working as a registered nurse at Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center," said PEF member Jill Dangler. "He broke facial bones including my jaw. I lost teeth, yet when I tried to file charges at the Utica Police Department, I was told that I knew of the risks when I took my job."
The campaign notes that although many people think workplace violence is random, unpredictable and therefore unpreventable, there are a number of common factors that increase a worker's risk of violence. These include:
  • low staffing levels
  • working alone
  • working late at night or early in the morning
  • working with money or prescription drugs
  • long waits for services by customers, clients or patients; and/or lack of available services
  • employees who work in homes or in the community.
CSEA Central Region President Jim Moore says that neither workers, nor the public should put up with the lack of security any more.
In this day and age, we live in a ‘post’ world – post-Schuyler County, post-Oklahoma City and post-September 11, which all serve as poignant reminders of what happens when security concerns are ignored. Chenango County can’t afford to continue their small-town ‘it won’t happen here’ mentality. That’s just what they thought in Watkins Glen, until four workers were killed. We all have a responsibility to honor their legacy and make sure that our workers and the public are better protected by getting a statewide standard enacted into law and preventively strengthening security measures.