Unmasking Harassment in the Workplace

Author: Michael Manere, CHC, CHSP

Mar 16, 2022 | OSHA

It is hard to imagine that we are into our third year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is understandable that we are hearing from our healthcare clients of growing anxiety and burnout that can lead to tension among employees regarding safety precautions and compliance. In some cases that tension can be expressed in behavior leading to charges of harassment and PHI violations.

Several areas that we hear have been particularly challenging are masking requirements, vaccine status, social distancing, outside of work activities, and virus-positive status. Emotions have worn thin, and people are increasingly animated in their reactions to fellow employees and the general work environment. Many of us have had to change holiday plans or adjust family activities relative to virus exposure, or potential exposure at work. All of this generates stress, anxiety, frustration and even anger. And, employers are liable when it leads to employee-on-employee bullying or aggression.

It has become evident during this pandemic that employee behavior both inside and outside of the workplace can affect everyone’s safety. Shifting regulations and guidance about masking and employer vaccine mandates have created grey areas resulting in potential stress and confusion.

But there are significant statutes and enforceable penalties regarding workplace harassment that apply. OSHA’s General Duty Clause and The Joint Commission’s new standard released Jan 1, 2022, aims to protect employees from violence in the workplace, which includes bullying, harassment, verbal threats, and physical harm. Employers who do not create secure, harassment-free workplaces can be subject to lawsuits, penalties, and fines.

Even though there are currently no specific OSHA standards for workplace violence, the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, states that, “An employer that has experienced acts of workplace violence, or becomes aware of threats, intimidation, or other indicators showing that the potential for violence in the workplace exists, would be on notice of the risk of workplace violence and should implement a workplace violence prevention program combined with engineering controls, administrative controls, and training.”

Now is a good time to remind employees that Compliance Hotlines are a safe and confidential place to voice concerns. It is important for all healthcare employers to discuss the requirements for decorum and fair play at work with their staff. It must be made clear that there is zero tolerance for harassing behavior and that there will be no retribution or retaliation for reporting any incidence of bullying or harassment about pandemic beliefs or breaches of office safety protocols regarding COVID-19. Breaches in behavior can result in termination.

With mutual respect in the workplace, healthcare practices will get through these hard times safely.