California’s Workplace Violence Protection Bill Clears Key Hurdle

An improptu memorial comprised of candles, flowers and handwritten messages.

Cortese recalled learning from first responders that they couldn’t immediately enter the building, where the shooter was still active, because they didn’t have an access key card. Cortese was also taken aback by the story of one of the victims who helped coworkers escape through a window onto a roof before he was killed.

“Had there been a plan in place that everyone understood, that this is how you get out of the second floor if there’s an intruder or an emergency that closes off access the other way … it could have saved lives,” said Cortese.

According to the latest figures by federal regulators, workplace violence is the third leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the U.S., killing 761 workers in 2021. However, mass shootings make up a small fraction of workplace homicide incidents, according to occupational safety experts.

About 1.3 million nonfatal work-related victimizations such as assaults and robberies occurred in the U.S. on average each year between 2015 and 2019, according to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and other federal agencies. Exchanging money with the public and working with volatile or unstable people such as in healthcare settings, are some of the most likely risk factors.

Why healthcare led the way in California

Before healthcare employers in the state were required to take steps to prevent violence, psychiatric nurse Rachel Cohen Zepeda said she witnessed terrible assaults on coworkers at different hospitals in the Bay Area, often by patients.

A person wearing a sport coat and sitting at a large round table speaks into a microphone.
Dave Cortese, then a District 15 State Senate candidate, speaks during a forum at the Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We knew we weren’t safe. People were getting beat down, like, head smashed onto the floor, chased, battered, patients would attack other patients,” she said.

But the rules have given nurses like her a seat at the table to push for safety improvements, said Cohen Zepeda.

A guard is now available in the building to immediately respond to incidents, and nurses are regularly trained on how to prevent violence and, if necessary, get out of choke holds. The panic buttons work, she said.

“You need laws in place that force employers to acknowledge the situation and try to do something about it,” said Cohen Zepeda, who is part of a workplace violence prevention committee at UCSF.

“I don’t think everything is fixed already. It’s a work in progress,” she added. “But it’s a complete change of culture from ‘You are a nurse, you are a human punching bag, what do you expect?’ to ‘Oh, this is not acceptable.’”

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