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Risky environment won’t end your duty to reduce danger to staff

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

All patients at Topeka State Hospital posed a danger to themselves or others. Staff members knew that, and the hospital regularly required workers to sign job description documents that mentioned the possibility of assault by patients. After a staff member was murdered, the hospital purchased personal alarms for employees, but they quickly fell out of use.

When psychologist Cynthia Turnbull evaluated a new patient, she noted that staff members shouldn't meet with him in small, enclosed areas. But because of a lack of treatment space, Turnbull and other psychologists frequently walked around the hospital grounds while talking with patients. During one such session with this new patient, he assaulted her in a slightly secluded part of the grounds. Turnbull suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and never returned to work there. She sued the hospital for allowing a sexually hostile work environment.

A jury found there was a sexually hostile environment but deadlocked on whether the hospital was liable. A federal appeals court ordered a new trial, refusing to let the employer off the hook. Even in a risky environment like a mental hospital, the court said, the employer must

take preventive measures to reduce possible danger. (Turnbull v. Topeka State Hospital, No. 00-3086, 10th Cir., 2001)

Advice: If the nature of your business creates risky situations, even if the source of the danger is customers or clients, don't ignore the danger. Constantly educate workers on how to avoid the risks, and give them the tools to keep safe. Although the hospital provided sexual harassment training, it didn't tell staff members how to respond to harassment by patients.

There's no bright line showing what's enough to protect employees, but courts will look at whether your actions are quick, effective and reasonable.

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