Protecting the Inspectors
- By Jerry Laws
- Feb 01, 2003
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.