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By Stephen Lee
Aug. 27 — The recent murders of two journalists on live television have raised new questions about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's role in protecting workers from gun violence.
Reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, who both worked for WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., were shot and killed while working Aug. 26 allegedly by a disgruntled ex-employee of the station. The alleged gunman, Vester Flanagan, killed himself later the same day.
OSHA has no plans to address gun violence or mass shootings in the workplace, an agency spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 27.
In a 1992 letter of interpretation, OSHA wrote that the Occupational Safety and Health Act's general duty clause could be used to cite employers that don't implement feasible means of abatement of workplace violence.
However, acts of violence that aren't characteristic of a given job, but rather represent “random antisocial acts which may occur anywhere,” wouldn't trigger a citation from OSHA, the agency wrote.
Most observers agreed that OSHA's role in abating gun violence is limited.
“This is an area that has to be addressed by Congress,” Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 27. “It's a larger issue about gun control.”
But OSHA has taken action in the past.
For example, in 2012 the agency issued a $10,500 fine against Integra Health Management in Maryland for failing to provide a safe workplace after a man with a history of violent behavior and mental illness stabbed and killed a worker.
An administrative law judge upheld the fine June 22.
“If I were in that setting, I would ask, what were the policies in place? What was the training? What were the signals of potential violence? All of those things go into analyzing the question. It’s not a simple analysis,” said Henry Chajet, a partner at Jackson Lewis PC.
Chajet also said it was possible that OSHA and other regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, might take a second look at gun violence if public pressure continues to mount.
“OSHA takes a harder line when there is a press focus,” Chajet said. “You also get congressional oversight or organizations to prevent handgun violence that are outraged and continue to press for more legal action. You get lots of different reactions that influence the type of response that OSHA and the regulatory system put out there.”
A handful of states have taken action to regulate guns in the workplace.
California enacted a law last year that lets law enforcement officers and immediate family members obtain court orders temporarily restricting a relative's access to guns if they believe that person presents a danger.
Because employers and work colleagues often have special information about a given person's threats to commit gun-related violence, they can share that information with law enforcement and, under the new law, strip away their guns at least temporarily, said Lindsay Nichols, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey have similar laws, but they only allow law enforcement—not family members—to request restraining orders.
However, a 2013 Tennessee law allows employees to keep firearms or ammunition in vehicles parked on company property.
The state's attorney general later said in a legal opinion that employers can fire at-will employees who keep their guns in their cars at work.
Park Dietz, a forensic psychologist in Newport Beach, Calif., said regulations are the wrong way to stem workplace violence.
“The people who reach a point in life at which they are so furious or so paranoid or so suicidal that they are willing to kill colleagues is inconsistent with rational, lawful responses to regulatory measures,” Dietz told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 27. “The very people who will do such things do not follow etiquette, social norms or the law.”
In fact, aggressive measures to subdue workers believed to have the potential for violence often end up making things worse, Dietz said.
“The single most provocative thing an employer can do is to call the police to come in uniform and remove the individual from a workplace, which guarantees he will never forgive you and will always be furious at the injustice,” he said.
Instead, employers should learn to anticipate violence and gently defuse it by treating people respectfully, Dietz said.
The National Rifle Association didn't respond to an interview request.
In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, guns accounted for 80 percent of all work-related homicides, according to DOL's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That year, 322 workers were shot and killed on the job, BLS said.
Researchers also found in 2005 that homicides were five to seven times more likely at workplaces that permitted guns.
Further, BLS researchers reported in a 2000 paper that two-thirds of all work-related homicides (not necessarily firearm-related) were committed by robbers; coworkers and former coworkers were the perpetrators only 15 percent of the time.
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