Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Yes…Bullying in the Firehouse is a Big Deal! (Part 2)

By I. David Daniels, MHRH, CFO, CSD, SHS

Bullying that directed at a singular victim by a group is considered “mobbing”.   Targets of either bullying or mobbing are not necessarily weak.  In fact, they usually anyone differ from the organizational norm. They are also generally competent, educated, resilient, outspoken, or challenge the status quo.  A firefighter is regularly criticized by the entire crew about their weight but not included in workouts.  The firefighter is regularly yelled at by members of the crew for minor errors and not allowed to drive the engine as a result of the same errors.  The crew has gone to the officer on a number of occasions and asked that the firefighter be transferred to another shift.  On top of the overt on-duty treatment, the firefighter is not invited to the shift breakfast meeting that occur when the crew gets off on a Friday morning.

While isolated hazing may not necessarily be considered bullying, either behavior can be interpreted as harassment.  Harassment is conduct that is outside the scope of necessary job performance and creates an unpleasant or hostile situation by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.  Strictly speaking it is difficult to make a human resource-based case that for harassment that is not directed toward a protected class.  Harassment that can be proven as being as a result of protected class characteristics or activities is illegal and can result in potential civil liability for both the perpetrator and the employer.

Where there is room for interpretation of what bullying, hazing and harassment, there is less for violence.  In their most severe forms, any of these behaviors can meet the definition of assault, which is either a civil wrong or criminal violation of the law.  Where “battery” involves contact, assault can be verbal, physical or sexual.  It can also be simple, aggravated or felonious.  While physical (simple, aggravated or felonious) assaults are not as frequent, they do occur, generally from customers towards responders.  Violence in the commission of a crime is Type 1, from a customer is Type 2, from a supervisor, co-worker or subordinate is Type 3 and from a domestic situation that comes into the workplace is Type 4.

Sadly, a form of assault that is in the headlines more than some may want to admit, is sexual assault.   Anyone who has been paying attention realizes that times are changing fairly rapidly in every sector of society.  From the Cosby and Weinstein allegations in entertainment, the Lauer allegations in television news, the Franken, Conyers and Trump allegations in government, and the #MeToo movement across society, accused perpetrators of sexual harassment are quickly becoming “persona non-grata” in both the private and public sphere.   Anyone in the fire services that thinks they will be exempt, should probably check the news.

Bullying, hazing, harassment or violence in the firehouse is often about how the targets of behavior interpret that behavior.  No matter how long you have been in the service or what your rank or responsibility, people are different.  The way that you once interacted with people has changed.  It doesn’t mean the groups of very different people can not have great relationships, but they have to be real and they have to be balanced.  Strong relationships can and will often prevent perceptions of incivility, bullying or worse.  A culture that allows people to feel free, that encourages trust for one another and communication, even when the topics are uncomfortable will are absolutely necessary to convert the firehouse into the “respect zone”.

The safety officer has a critical role in preventing and addressing incivility, hazing, bullying, harassment and violence.  Too often the safety offers limits their involvement to issues that are more obvious.  While the safety officer certainly can not be “all things to all people”, to the extent they can help make the overall environment of the workplace safer, they will achieve many of the goals that they world class safety management systems seek.  A few thoughts to keep in mind:

Expand your view of safety.  There are actually six types of hazards that workers are exposed to in the workplace including Physical (Noise, heat and cold, etc.), Chemical, Ergonomic, Radiation, Biological and Psychological.  Psychological safety can at times be at the root of other potential safety hazards in that people often act based on ways that they feel.  People who feel bullied or harassed can escalate to violent actions that result in increased vulnerability from physical and other hazards.

Understand the connection between safety and human resources.  Many of the solutions for dysfunctional safety cultures including bullying and harassment are as much human resource management issues as they are safety issues.  Many bullying leaders conduct themselves in the ways that they were treated due to a lack of training regarding how the organization wants people to be treated.  History becomes the standard when there is nothing to replace it in the present.

Remain Neutral.  The safety officer’s job is NOT to protect the organization or to protect the individuals at the exclusion of the other, but to ensure that the environment in the workplace is safe for both.  Ere on the side of what creates a workplace that is As Safe As Reasonably Achievable.  It means that you have to be on the side of safety and remain as neutral as possible, so both the organization and the individuals will trust you.

Expand your training and expertise.  The safety officer who is only functional at an emergency is of limited ultimate value to the organization.  The major role of the safety officer is to help create a culture of hazard prevention where employees don’t get hurt in the first place.  To be effective outside of the incident environment requires training and education in areas other than operational hazard recognition.  Many of the important issue that affect safety in an organization are not unique to the public sector.  In fact, the private sector has done a much better job of eliminating the kinds of hazards that firefighter face everyday in their non-emergency capacities.

I. David Daniels is a public-sector safety professional for over 25 years, in local governments across the United States. He is President/CEO of a workplace safety consulting firm, ID2 Solutions, LLC. His professional career highlights include roles as a Fire Chief, Emergency Manager, Chief Safety Officer and Executive Director of Safety in local government organizations in three states.

Daniels holds an Associate of Arts Degree in Fire Command and Administration, Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Services Administration, Master’s Degree in Human Resources Management. He is certified as a Safety Director, Safety Auditor, Violence Prevention Specialist, Emergency Management Specialist, Safety and Health Specialist, and Fire Service Health and Safety Officer. He is also a Chief Fire Officer designee.

Daniels is a member and delegate with the National Safety Council (NSC) and chair of the NSC’s Government and Public-Sector Division. He serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety, Health, and Survival Section; and chairs the IAFC’s Bullying, Harassment and Violence Prevention Task Group.

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