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Are Public Employees Safe at Work?

Whether it's violence like the Virginia Beach shooting at a municipal building, or danger due to the nature of the job, government workers lack health and safety protections in nearly half the states.

Memorial in front of police tape and building with parking lot.
A makeshift memorial rests at the edge of a police cordon in front of the Virginia Beach Municipal Center where 11 employees and a contractor were fatally shot.
(AP/Patrick Semansky)
On May 31, in the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, 11 city workers were fatally killed by a coworker who resigned hours before the shooting. Four other city employees, and a police officer, were injured. 

It was one of the deadliest workplace mass shootings since 2000 and conjured up memories of an attack in 2015 that killed 14 people, including 13 county employees at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino County, Calif.

Violent attacks in the workplace are not common, but they may leave public employees fearful about going to work, especially in understaffed institutions.

“Across the country, chronic understaffing in correctional facilities, youth detention centers, psychiatric hospitals and in social services contributes to high turnover among qualified staff and increases the likelihood that violent incidents will occur,” says Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Of course, it’s not only violence that threatens the safety of public employees. Some government jobs are dangerous, and accidents happen. But while the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) sets standards for and investigates workplace accidents for the private sector, it doesn't do the same for the public sector.

“There’s a wide range of hazards that public employees are subject to,” says Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

Milwaukee unfortunately knows this better than most.


On-Duty Deaths in Milwaukee

In March 2017, a neighborhood services worker who was reinspecting a house that had been cited for code violations was shot and killed in his car, apparently in an attempted robbery. That same year, a crossing guard died three weeks after he was struck by a hit-and-run driver. In February, a public works employee filling potholes was also killed by a hit-and-run driver. And in April, a parking enforcement officer was punched, kicked and stabbed three times by two assailants as he was issuing a parking citation. 

“I’ve been here since 2004, and two years ago was the first time we were forced to deal with an on-duty death as a result of a crime,” says Maria Monteagudo, director of employee relations for the city. “You don’t expect a building inspector who is sitting in his car writing a report to have somebody shoot him. You don’t expect a laborer filling potholes or a school crossing guard to be hit by drivers who just keep going. That’s not what you expect when you go to work.”

These tragedies spurred Monteagudo and her staff to survey employees, study safety practices, run training sessions, and require all departments to update their policies and protocols with a safety-first approach. 

“We’re saying, ‘Forget about the citation. Get out of the situation.’ And that’s in writing,” she says. “If you feel your safety or your life is in jeopardy, you have the authority to get out of the situation without fear of reprimand for not doing your job.”


State Workplace Safety Standards

When the Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed in 1970, states were given the option to create their own OSHA-approved plans that they would administer themselves for public-sector employees.

Only roughly half the states (28) have done so. The other 22 states are mostly in the South and noncoastal West.

“States that have failed to create OSHA-approved plans are allowing a huge gap to exist in the safety net for public-sector employees,” says Goldstein-Gelb of the Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “It’s well-documented that OSHA standards save lives, so to fail to enact these measures subjects public employees to heightened risk of injury or death.”

New Hampshire is one of the 22 states that does not have an OSHA-approved plan, but an on-the-job death of a highway worker spurred the legislature to pass a worker safety bill in May that will improve reporting about injuries and deaths.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill last year that requires the state to develop an OSHA-approved health and safety plan for state and local employees. When the plan gets the green light, the state will be eligible for up to a 50 percent match from the federal agency for the costs of administering it.

“Any state that is currently not moving in this direction,” says Goldstein-Gelb, “is going to continue to see an unacceptable number of injuries and deaths.” 

In 2017, 265 local government workers and 91 state employees died while on duty, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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