Report: 13% of feds witness workplace ‘violence’

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 3, 2012

Violence is not an overwhelming problem in the federal workplace, but it can be a traumatic experience for the 13 percent of employees who have witnessed it.

That’s the segment that has observed workplace violence, according to a report by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), as we noted last week in the Federal Eye blog.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Although that figure means the vast majority of federal workers have a right to feel secure, these “survey results, when extrapolated to the federal workforce as a whole, mean that more than 240,000 federal employees observed an incident of workplace violence,” the report says.

That’s about the population of Norfolk. Among certain occupation groups and agencies, particularly the Department of Veterans Affairs, the degree of violence is significantly higher.

“Prevention and mitigation of workplace violence is challenging,” said Susan Tsui Grundmann, MSPB’s chairman, in a statement issued with the report. “Limiting physical access to federal workplaces is not enough, because the vast majority of perpetrators of federal workplace violence are individuals who, for the most part, have a legitimate reason to be in the workplace.”

Law enforcement officers expect violence to come with their jobs and the MSPB report found, as might be expected, that officers have “higher than average rates of workplace violence.” An example of that was Tuesday’s fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Nicholas J. Ivie and the wounding of another officer along the U.S. border with Mexico in Arizona.

The MSPB report was based on a 2010 survey that asked about violence during the preceding two years. The most common type of violence observed “was, by far, violence perpetrated by current or former employees,” the survey found. “Survey respondents observed this type of workplace violence more often than violence perpetrated by all other individuals combined.”

While violence is not frequent, conflict is “fairly commonplace,” according to a 2005 MSPB survey. It said 49 percent of supervisors in the previous year and 37 percent of all employees in the previous two years had dealt with at least one serious conflict.

The 2010 survey found that 73 percent of employees “agreed that their agencies take sufficient steps to ensure their safety from violence occurring at their workplace.” That doesn’t say much for the others, which is a pretty good chunk.

Physical injury and property damage were rare. Fifteen percent resulted in physical injury and 10 percent in property loss or damage. The survey’s definition of violence included physical assaults, threats of assault, harassment, intimidation and bullying.

Among other things, MSPB recommended that agencies develop formal workplace violence prevention programs, collect data on workplace violence and screen applicants for a history of violent behavior.

The Office of Personnel Management had a low percentage of witnesses to violence. Four percent of its employees said they had observed violent incidents. That’s the lowest percentage among the 24 large agencies surveyed. The U.S. Postal Service was not included. The VA, at 23 percent, led all agencies surveyed by a large margin.

It’s hard to draw straight-line comparisons with private industry and state and local governments, according to Doug Nierle, the report’s project manager. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited in the document, 5 percent of private establishments have reported workplace violence, as did 32 percent of state facilities and 15 percent of local government workplaces.

But different studies define violence differently. Some look at only physical violence, unlike the MSPB survey. Some surveys direct questions to organizations. The MSPB asked employees.

At “the very core of the civil service are jobs that help the public and deliver benefits — positions that are among the most likely to experience workplace violence,” the report says. “For example, customers might lash out at federal employees when they believe the services they seek are delivered too slowly, when their benefits are cut, or when they do not receive the benefits or services to which they believe they are entitled.”

Also, the VA employs many health-care workers, and they are more frequently the target of workplace violence.

“Such violence may occur when a patient needs to be restrained, when a patient is agitated or has received bad news, or when a patient is asked to do something the patient does not want to do,” the report said. “Friends of patients or family members who may be anxious or distressed may also be sources of workplace violence against members of the medical profession.”

The VA and the Social Security Administration, which has the second-highest rate of violence, are “two agencies where most of the workplace violence that employees observed was perpetrated by customers, clients or patients,” the survey found, and not current and former staffers.

While no program can eliminate workplace violence, threats and intimidation “demand the attention of federal managers,” Grundmann said, “because they poison the work environment and may lead to more serious physical violence.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow him on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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