Protecting the Inspectors

TUMWATER, Wash.-- December 17, 2002--The Department of Labor and Industries said it will take whatever steps are necessary to provide protection to its inspectors and other employees in the field who occasionally encounter threatening people. A recent example occurred in Winthrop, Okanogan County, in which L&I asked the county prosecutor to file charges against a man who assaulted an L&I electrical inspector. . . .

Every job entails hazards of some kind. But, without question, performing inspections shouldn't be life-threatening work. That a state safety authority even felt the need to publicize its concern about threats and violence directed at its field personnel speaks volumes, to me. I learned L&I had recorded two physical assaults and one verbal threat against its people last year. With 663 staffers working in the field--auditing, making collections, and inspecting electrical, construction compliance, workplace safety, boilers, elevators, and more--L&I's personnel shared the grief and alarm when Roger Erdman, a 14-year auditor of truckers' fuel taxes for the Washington State Department of Licensing, was killed in June 2002 while out on a routine audit. The man he was auditing awaits trial, charged with first-degree murder.

L&I's internal safety and health program manager, Julie Black, said there is no indication threats are widespread or increasing. Still, the agency went to work--updating its workplace violence training, instituting job hazard analysis training, talking one-on-one with the field troops about sharing information and meeting those they audit at neutral sites, if necessary. L&I and the State Patrol are spreading the word that intimidating or threatening a public employee is a Class B felony in Washington, said State Patrol Sgt. Patti Reed, who investigates cases involving L&I employees.

Reed and Black made certain the field personnel know they should back out of a threatening situation and that they won't be second-guessed afterward. "Everybody's been supportive up to now. Employees are very appreciative of this," Black said.

Erdman's death in the line of duty was unprecedented, "just a horribly tragic, out-of-the-blue incident," explained Department of Licensing spokesman Brad Benfield. "The level of threat didn't seem to be real high," particularly in Erdman's section. Eight months later, Licensing is wrapping up a three-phase review process. The agency has made many changes, from its first agency-wide ID cards to an intranet safety page, mandatory ongoing safety training, a tighter policy on dissemination of employee information, and a safety training component added to employee evaluations. At this writing, still under discussion were cellphones and providing access to criminal information databases (this would not have turned up anything on the man accused of killing Erdman, Benfield said). "It hit our agency very hard," he said, "and our director decided he would take whatever steps were necessary to make sure an incident like that never happened again."

In the end, it comes down to an inspector's gut instinct and awareness. Perhaps Roger Erdman's death will be the warning that saves other lives. As Sgt. Reed said, "Back out, get away from the person, get away from the situation. . . . You don't have to issue a citation in that case today."

This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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