Violence prompts Oregon OSHA inquiry

Employees who were hit by a co-worker ask senator for help

MICHAEL ROSE Statesman Journal February 12, 2005

An episode of workplace violence at the Eugene office of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division has raised questions about Oregon OSHA's ability to take care of its own employees.

The incidents in Eugene, where several Oregon OSHA employees were struck by a co-worker but not injured, has led to a state Senate hearing and a report ordered by Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office. Oregon OSHA employees allege their bosses brushed aside concerns about the worker's behavior.

"It's unbelievable," said Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield. "How can this happen in the agency responsible for preventing violence in the workplace?"

Morrisette said he intervened when Oregon OSHA employees asked for his help. The senator and other officials familiar with the case refused to provide names of those involved or many specifics about the incident. They did confirm the em-ployee doing the hitting, a 22-year employee of Oregon OSHA, was fired last year for unspecified reasons.

"This is a complicated issue of protecting worker rights to a violence-free workplace and protections for disabilities," said Jessica Stevens, of SEIU Local 503, OPEU, the union that represents Oregon OSHA workers. The fired employee had a disability and he did not intend to harm anyone, she said.

Morrisette maintains Oregon OSHA's response to a workplace threat was unacceptable.

Workers at the Eugene office complained for years before any action was taken, he said. One supervisor who attempted to tackle the problem was subsequently fired for "having a bad attitude," Morrisette said.

"If these things are actually happening, why does it take so long to do something?" he said.

Oregon OSHA management also ignored the recommendations of its designated "risk manager," whose job is to protect employees as well as prevent lawsuits directed at the agency, Morrisette said.

The Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, which oversees Oregon OSHA as well as six other divisions, has tracked workplace threats made by its employees as well as outsiders:

Fifty-seven threats came from "external sources," such as people angry about a decision made by one of the divisions under DCBS' umbrella -- during roughly the last five years, agency officials said.

Four threats were made by former DCBS employees during the same five-year period.

Another four threats were made by state employees who were working at DCBS when the threats were logged.

DCBS officials deny workplace violence is an ongoing issue at its operations, which range from the Building Codes Division to the Insurance Division. They do, however, admit to an employee communications problem.

"We found very clearly there is not a problem with violence in the workplace (at Oregon OSHA offices), but there were issues related to communication and trust," said Steve Corson, a spokesman for the department. A consulting firm has been hired to the address the problems, he said.

Morrisette maintains that Oregon OSHA employees are afraid to discuss workplace problems with higher-ups out of fear of losing their jobs. It's an outrageous situation for an agency charged with enforcing safety rules and promoting a zero tolerance policy for workplace violence, he said.

A report on Oregon OSHA, issued January 26 by the Department of Administrative Services on orders from the governor's office, did not address the incidents at the Eugene office directly. The report did discuss the results of interviews with 74 Oregon OSHA employees, and the findings seem to verify some of Morrisette's concerns.

The report stated the division is "struggling through issues of effective leadership, involvement of managers and employees in decision-making, respect for individual differences, teamwork and collaboration, and effective interactive communications. These issues have resulted in low employee morale."

Moreover, the report also found "a lack of opportunity or encouragement for OR-OSHA staff to raise issues or problems with upper management."

At a November hearing of the Senate Interim Committee on General Government, Cory Streisinger, director of the DCBS, was grilled by Morrisette. The state's system for responding to threats depends on employees coming forward with complaints, and management properly reporting them as threats, Streisinger said.

At the Eugene office, some of the worker complaints were wrongly recorded as a personnel issue, she said. Anything perceived as a threat should be handled as one, she said.

"We do take these issues very seriously," Streisinger testified at the hearing.

A spokeswoman for the governor's office said Kulongoski was satisfied by Streisinger's response and the steps taken to keep state offices safe places to worsk.

mrose@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6657