Emergency Preparedness and Response

Guarding a Children’s Hospital Against Workplace Violence

Healthcare facilities are particularly vulnerable to incidents of workplace violence, and keeping hospitals safe for patients, staff, and visitors can be a monumental task. It’s a daily challenge for Jim Sawyer, CHS-IV, CPP, CHPA, Director of Security Services for Seattle Children’s Hospital.

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“We need to validate and authenticate every visitor to the hospital,” says Sawyer, who has worked in Seattle Children’s Security Services Department since 1975 and served as its director since 1993. “We issue 2,500 badges a day and check every visitor over the age of 12 for sex offender status. One of the driving themes of securing a children’s hospital is knowing who, exactly, is in your facility at all times.”

However, Sawyer also notes that the potential for violence doesn’t just exist in external threats from visitors—suicidal patient populations must also be taken into account. “We’ve seen an exponential increase in suicidal kids,” he says. “We had 14 last night and 20 the night before. We have to keep them safe.”

Going the Extra Mile

In his over 40 years of working in the security field, Sawyer has seen more than his fair share of volatile situations that were effectively defused by proper training and policies. Sawyer credits a special kind of vigilance for helping to ensure the safety of the facility, staff, and patients.

“We have a patient watch team that looks after the mental health patients literally daily,” Sawyer says. “We have also had several domestic violence interventions where we contacted perpetrators and advised them to cease, and we have actually gone to court with members of our staff seeking to obtain protective orders. We catch probably 2 or 3 sex offenders a week, and we either redirect them out of the facility, or, if they are the parents of patients, help them set up support plans and get required help.”

In some extreme cases, Sawyer’s security team goes even further. “We’ve had domestic violence situations where staff have really been at risk,” he says. “We had our CCTV team give these employees cameras, which they now own themselves. Of course, we don’t broadcast the specifics of how, when, or where we take these security precautions. We go the extra mile to support staff here.”

Keys to a Workplace Violence Prevention Program

Sawyer is an expert on workplace violence prevention programs and teaches classes for Seattle Children’s staff on workplace violence and personal safety, including an in-house self-defense course for women. Here are three things he says safety professionals must prioritize when considering their own programs.

  1. Adopt a “zero incidents” philosophy. “Not zero tolerance,” Sawyer clarifies. “Zero incidents. Adopt this philosophy house-wide.”
  2. Teach verbal de-escalation techniques. “Verbal de-escalation and intuitional awareness should be a part of all staff training to prevent violence,” says Sawyer.
  3. Instruct staff on the realities of gun violence. “Not gun control,” cautions Sawyer. “Gun violence. I would rather dry shave a rabid, homicidal bobcat’s butt in a phone booth with a box cutter than argue gun control. But it’s important to explain the realities of how gun violence and active shooter situations work and what one can do to mitigate the threat.”

Make Training Fun, NOT Fearful

Training is the cornerstone of workplace violence prevention, but trainers must ensure that they eliminate fear and make the experience as fun as possible. “You cannot have success scaring people,” Sawyer emphasizes. “Teach your staff that 90% of violence is preventable. Develop and advocate situational awareness and intuition—not fear.”

Sawyer says that it is incredibly important to stress in workplace violence training what staff can actively do to prevent violence—do not focus on the gory details or potentially awful outcomes of an incident. “If you turn your violence prevention training into an H.P Lovecraft or Stephen King story that is riddled with horror and fear, you have lost,” says Sawyer.

Optimism for the Future

Despite the constant presence of violence in national headlines, Sawyer views the glass as half full when it comes to efforts to combat it.

“I am optimistic that there is a lot we can do to prevent violence,” says Sawyer. “Yes, I am deeply concerned about 474 mass shootings in 2017 and 93 people shot to death daily in the United States—I would be a fool if that did not concern me. That said, there is a lot that a workplace can do to prevent this. Again, embrace a ‘zero incidents’ philosophy.”

Jim SawyerJoin Jim Sawyer for his hands-on educational session Workplace Violence Prevention Plan Workshop: Designing and Updating Essential Policies, Recordkeeping, and Response Strategies at BLR®’s Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium March 6–7, 2018, in Savannah, GA!