On March 4, 2011, a patient with a history of mental illness locked herself and a nurse inside the emergency room at the Veterans Affairs Department’s White River Junction Medical Center in Vermont. She held a scalpel to the nurse’s neck before being disarmed by VA police, according to court documents.
On Jan. 12, Jennifer Beidler pled guilty to felony assault and was sentenced to two years of supervised release, according to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont.
VA leads all agencies in workplace violence, with 23 percent of employees saying they witnessed at least one act of violence at work over a two-year period, according to the newly released results of a Merit Systems Protection Board survey.
Governmentwide, roughly 13 percent of employees say they have witnessed workplace violence in the two years between 2008 and 2010, according to the survey.
The survey was conducted in 2010 and generated responses from 42,000 federal employees at 30 agencies. But MSPB only released the results last week as part of a study on federal workplace violence.
The latest national survey on workplace violence was done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2005. In that, 5 percent of private-sector employees said they witnessed at least one violent incident in their workplace in the last 12 months. For state government employees, the figure was 32 percent, and for local government employees, 15 percent.
The MSPB study is significant because so few are done on federal workplace violence in particular, but also because the findings may surprise many that workplace violence is as prevalent as it is in the federal government.
One of the more surprising findings was the source of the violence — about 54 percent of incidents witnessed governmentwide were caused by current or former co-workers.
“The results of our survey of federal employees indicate that when an incident of physical assault, threat of assault, harassment, intimidation or bullying occurs in a federal workplace, it is most likely caused by current or former Federal employees rather than customers, criminals or those who have a personal relationship with an employee,” MSPB Chairman Susan Grundmann said in a letter to Congress and the administration that accompanied the new report.
She said agencies should make sure their violence-prevention programs address violence caused by co-workers.
In this respect, VA bucks the governmentwide trend: 54 percent of violent incidents witnessed were committed by customers and visitors, while 33 percent were by employees, according to MSPB. Governmentwide, the percentage of violent incidents committed by customers and visitors is far less, about 34 percent.
The remaining 12 percent of workplace violence incidents were committed by relatives of federal employees or by criminals, according to the report.
The report estimates that a quarter of all incidents cited resulted in either injury or property damage, although it did not attempt to tally individual incidents.
According to federal employees and organizations, federal workplace policies and procedures are not up to the task of addressing violence committed by co-workers.
One Interior Department employee, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said a co-worker yelled at him and has treated others abusively, but management has made no effort to discipline him. He said his managers thought the burden of proof was too high to initiate the disciplinary process, and he was told to just keep his distance.
“I have felt uncomfortable in my workplace ever since and now work behind a closed and locked door,” he said.
With the stress of budget cuts, the threat of furloughs, frozen pay scales and increased workloads, “we are left with a lot of tension which could ultimately create violent incidents in the workplace,” said Jon Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
“We may be seeing an epidemic of short fuses created by Congress’ inability to properly fund agencies and protect pay for federal law enforcement,” he said.
Law enforcement officers lack programs to help them cope with increased stress and workplace violence, Adler said. Law enforcement agencies should create peer groups where officers can talk out their problems and share their frustrations within a safe environment, he said.
Charletta McNeil, president of American Federation of Government Employees Union Local 32 at the Office of Personnel Management, agreed that agencies need to address workplace violence.
“I don’t think there are a lot of federal agencies with policies in place with real teeth,” she said.
OPM takes swift action to make sure employees feel safe, she said, but all agencies should revisit their policies to make sure violent or bullying employees are properly disciplined.
Georgia Thomas, vice president of diversity for Federally Employed Women, said employees and not just managers should be trained in conflict resolution to learn to defuse tense situations that could result in violence.
Employees have the expectation that they will be safe in the workplace and agencies need to do a better job of educating employees about workplace harassment and violence policies, she said.
VA spokeswoman Josephine Schuda said the department will not tolerate any kind of aggression. Its facilities are required to have procedures in place to prevent and respond to workplace violence.
“VA leaders consider all employee concerns as legitimate and take action to investigate the report and intercede to resolve the issue,” Schuda said.
The report recommends that agencies:
Establish programs that outline responsibilities to prevent or respond to workplace violence and ensure that agency components can work together if violence occurs.
Collect data on the prevalence and nature of violence in their organizations in order to develop more effective prevention programs. The data should include the type of violence as well as demographic information.
Bring together managers, supervisors and human resources officers to help foster a culture of openness and tolerance of people and ideas in order to reduce violence.