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Where to start: Workplace safety with Kathleen Boncyzk

The National Safety Council (“NSC”) began its work in 1913 under the name The National Council of Industrial Safety in the interest of keeping workers safe. Since its inception to today, the Council’s focus has come full circle to include safety for workers in non-industrial roles along with other initiatives. In June 1996, the NSC established June as National Safety Month.

I was honored to spend some time with Kathleen Boncyzk, Esq.,  Founder and President of the Workplace Violence Prevention Institute. I can’t imagine a discussion about workplace safety without Kathleen at the table. Since beginning her corporate career in human resources, protecting workers has been high on her list of priorities. She doesn’t believe that an employee should have to bear the responsibility of getting their jobs done while having to worry about the various social risks that are prevalent today.

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Lee Coleman: Why did you create the WVPI?
Kathleen Boncyzk: I have been interested in safety during my entire career. I began in human resources and then as an attorney working with both employers and employees in a myriad of safety-related claims. I became interested in root-cause analysis as we started to see a number of trends in assault and harassment complaints. I wondered what we could do to turn this around? I founded the WVPI to educate and provide information and training where safety is concerned to employees, employers, and grassroots organizations. There’s a lot that we can do from a preventative standpoint. It was initially created as a think tank with colleagues that all felt the same way: prevention is the only solution. Last year we organized as a non-profit.

Lee Coleman: It’s National Safety Month. What can employers do to ensure that their employees are safe in the workplace?
Kathleen Boncyzk: First and foremost, recognize there is a lot that the employer can and should from the top down to help make workers safe. It is critically important to explain in no uncertain terms what the expectation is. We can’t just put the rules and regulations into a handbook and not revisit them again. Management must continually reaffirm employees that do it well as they are models for everyone else. If there is a safety policy breach, it must be dealt with by correcting the behavior immediately. It is better to deal with a molehill than a mountain. There is a lot that can be done, but it must be strategic and come from the top down. Employers must show employees that safety is number one and, no matter who it is, the safety procedures are the safety procedures.

Lee Coleman: Why is it important for an employer to have a safety plan?
Kathleen Boncyzk: If it’s written down, that communicates non-verbally that safety is important. It should be disseminated by whoever is at the top of the organizational structure so that it’s understood that “we mean business.” Many problems that have gone to arbitration, EEOC, litigation or OSHA could have been avoided. Having a safety plan also helps serve as a reminder for those who behave in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s safety rules and regulations.

Lee Coleman: What are the key components of a good safety plan?
Kathleen Boncyzk: The very first page should be a letter to everyone from the CEO, Executive Director or someone at the very top of the organization. It should introduce the plan and reiterate the organization’s commitment to everyone abiding by it. Next, the rules and regulations should be clearly spelled out with definitions, expectations and good examples. There should also be a grievance procedure should someone need to report. Procedures should invite employees to come forward with concerns. They need to know that they are the eyes and ears for the company and aren’t going to get into trouble for coming forward. Employees should have several options for reporting in the event that they aren’t comfortable going to their immediate supervisor. This could be the human resources director or even a confidential 800-number. They also need to be assured that every concern will be looked into in a timely manner.

Kathleen Boncyzk, Esq.

Kathleen Boncyzk, Esq., Founder and President of the Workplace Violence Prevention Institute

Lee Coleman: What would you tell an employer who shies away from implementing safety measures due to cost?
Kathleen Boncyzk: You can’t afford not to implement safety measures because “We’ve never had an accident or been sued.” It only takes one incident. In this day and age, safety is absolutely incalculable, and employers must make it a priority. The resulting morale issues, loss of productivity, cost of litigation, increased insurance costs, etc., are just not worth it.

Lee Coleman: How is the WVPI working to impact workplace safety today?
Kathleen Boncyzk: As a grassroots organization, our number one challenge is also our number one issue: awareness and education. Establish relationships with law enforcement, business leaders, HR. Raising awareness is where we can have the most impact, educating influencers and key contacts, as well as general public.

Lee Coleman: Do you feel that current laws and regulations adequately address worker safety?
Kathleen Boncyzk: No. Stronger laws need to go in to place. When incidents occur, we have the information but we’re not communicating or connecting the dots. There is usually advanced knowledge that the person was going to do something. The only way we see change is after Supreme Court rules that you can go after someone. For example, the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill allows employees the opportunity to seek civil remedies. We need stronger laws.

Lee Coleman: What do you see as the legal benefits for a company willing to provide a personal safety device like the SoloProtect ID to their employees?
Kathleen Boncyzk: In this day and age, especially dealing with a lone worker (i.e. home health nurse, technician, etc.), it’s the right thing to do. There is an added benefit above a cellphone. This provides workers with additional protection that allows them to notify someone without alerting the perpetrator. Should an incident occur, defense and plaintiff’s counsel will look to see if there is negligence. Negligence theory looks at “Did the employer have a duty to protect the worker and did they breach it?” A personal safety device shows that the employer took an added measure of care in trying to protect employees.

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