Workplace Violence: Chelsea Mental Health Provider Signs Settlement Agreement to Improve Worker Protection

Chelsea-based North Suffolk Mental Health Association Inc. has entered into a company-wide settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor to implement comprehensive procedures and policies to better safeguard its workers against the hazards of workplace violence – specifically developing a plan to ensure that workers are not left alone with patients.

The settlement came as a result of the 2011 murder of case worker Stephanie Moulton, 25, by a patient at a North Suffolk facility in Revere.

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited North Suffolk in June 2011 for failing to provide adequate safeguards against workplace violence following the murder in January 2011.

Moulton was a senior on-site counselor and was left alone with the troubled patient – who ended up kidnapping her, stealing her car and murdering her. The patient was arrested, but later was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial. He is being held indefinitely at Bridgewater State Hospital.

North Suffolk contested its citation to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. The settlement, which applies to all North Suffolk programs, activities and workplaces, now resolves the case.

Service Employees International Union Local 509, which represents some of the employees affected by the settlement, elected third party status in the case, participated in the proceedings, and is a signatory to the agreement.

“This resolution cannot restore the life that was taken. But it can help prevent future injuries and loss of life,” said Marthe Kent, OSHA’s New England regional administrator. “Enhanced safeguards and training at all North Suffolk locations will equip workers with the knowledge and tools to protect themselves better against assault.”

“While North Suffolk had in place certain programs and policies to address workplace violence, what we sought in this litigation, and have achieved in this settlement, were improvements for all its locations. These policies are designed to reduce workplace violence substantially, which tragically accounts for injuries and even fatalities,” said Michael Felsen, the department’s regional Solicitor of Labor for New England.

The terms of the settlement include agreeing to a stand-alone written violence prevention program for all client-related service programs at all its locations. The program’s elements will include workplace controls and prevention strategies; hazard/threat/security assessments; a workplace violence policy statement outlining and emphasizing a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence; incident reporting and investigation; and periodic review of the prevention program.

Management will solicit staff input and ensure staff involvement in the workplace violence prevention program, including offering full membership on the company’s safety committee.

North Suffolk also agrees to take, at a minimum, the following measures across all its operations, to the extent it hasn’t already:

•Implement procedures to communicate any material incident of workplace violence or threatening behavior to staff in a timely manner.

•Implement procedures to account for staff who end their shift away from North Suffolk work sites; a buddy system for at least the second and third shifts, as appropriate, based on situational risk assessments; a procedure for staff to request additional coverage when necessary including, but not limited to, situations where staff members communicate that they feel unsafe; and a system for documenting such requests.

•Determine the behavioral history of new and transferred clients and utilize a system, such as log books, to identify clients with assaultive or threatening behavior and communicate pertinent information to potentially exposed staff; train staff to understand the system; and have a process in place to respond appropriately to clients who display disruptive behavior.

•Provide staff with a reliable way of summoning assistance, such as electronic alarms, cell phones and/or walkie-talkies, when needed on company premises, when staff is alone with a client in the community and/or transporting a client in a vehicle.

•Conduct annual risk assessments of each work site to ensure exit routes are available and easily identified. Provide adequate lighting at all company facilities.

Finally, it agrees to pay the original assessed OSHA fine of $7,000, the maximum fine allowed under law for a serious violation. The settlement will become a final order of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission on Sept. 5.

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