Commentary & Opinion

Do Workplace Bullies Violate OSHA?

By Jon Hyman

Jul. 31, 2019

According to a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, bullying bosses make workplaces less safe.

Poor treatment from a boss can make employees feel that they’re not valued by a group. As a result, they can become more self-centered, leading them to occasionally forget to comply with safety rules or overlook opportunities to promote a safer work environment.

The headline made me think that if bullying contributes to an unsafe workplace, can it also violate OSHA? The answer is quite possibly yes.

While OSHA does not have a specific standard on workplace bullying, it does have a General Duty Clause. It requires that employers provide a workplace free from conditions that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees. It’s not a stretch to imagine bullying, or permitting the continued employment of a bully, to violate this duty.

Moreover, if bullying violates OSHA, then failing to have a policy against it, and properly training employees on that policy, also violates OSHA. It’s a potential triple whammy.

Arguing that OSHA covers bullying is not novel. At last year’s American Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Law Section annual conference, for example, one panel argued for OSHA coverage for sexual harassment. OSHA already covers workplace violence and the hazards that cause it, potentially including intimidation and verbal abuse. And, in 2011 OSHA adopted an anti-bullying policy for its own employees.

I’m not saying this is a clear-cut issue. In fact, I think it’s more likely than not that OSHA does not cover workplace bullying. But the fact that we’re having this conversation shows that this is an ongoing problem that employers need to address.

What can employers do? The Journal of Applied Psychology study offers three suggestions.

  1. Implement training programs that can improve leaders’ skills in interacting with their employees, so as to provide feedback and discipline in ways that are neither offensive nor threatening.
  2. Promote a more civil and engaged work environment that strengthens social bonds between employees and creates a buffer against the negative consequences of their boss’ bad behaviors
  3. Implement transparent performance evaluation processes so employees have less uncertainty about their social status in the workplace.
Or, you can just adopt my four-word workplace civility policy. Either way, tolerating and condoning abuse in the workplace, or worse yet, perpetrating it, cannot and should not continue, OSHA violation or no OSHA violation.
Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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