California Case Tests Workplace-Safety Laws

Rape victim faults employer for not ensuring safe job site

CAN a university be held responsible for not providing safe working conditions if a woman is raped on campus?

That precedent-setting question lies behind an unusual case in California that may hold implications for workplace-safety standards nationwide.

Women's rights groups, public safety officials, and property owners are closely watching the outcome of a San Francisco arbitration case because it comes at time when violence in the workplace is on the rise.

San Francisco State University (SFSU) is the first college in California -- and probably the first in the nation -- to be investigated for workplace-safety violations because of the rape of an employee.

While working in a campus building two years ago, a woman professor was raped. She and the union she belongs to, the California Faculty Association (CFA), charge that easy access to the building was a contributing factor to the crime and constitutes a violation of federal workplace-safety laws. University officials deny the accusation, saying campus buildings are generally safe.

California Occupational Health and Safety Administration (Cal-OSHA) officials have completed an investigation of campus safety and will decide whether to issue a citation by the end of May.

Because Cal-OSHA has taken a leading role in combating workplace violence, says Helen Norton, director of equal-opportunity programs for the Washington-based Women's Legal Defense Fund, the San Francisco State case has national significance. If the union prevails, she says, ''It would definitely send a message to employers nationally that workplace violence must be taken seriously.''

Over the past five years, violent assaults have become a major cause of workplace injury. Nationally, 25 percent of employees are the victim of a violent episode, says Robert Harrison, an occupational health professor at the University of California at San Francisco. Homicide is now the second cause of work-related deaths in the US, and the first for women. Some 425 women were murdered at work in 1993, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington.

''Unfortunately,'' Dr. Harrison says, ''our workers are no longer immune from the general violence in society.''

Two years ago, a woman professor, who will be called ''Dr. N,'' was working in her SFSU office at 7 p.m. After walking down the hall, she was accosted, dragged into a bathroom, beaten, and raped. The perpetrator has never been found.

Dr. N wrote to university administrators with suggestions on how to make her classroom building more safe. ''It's a very old building with lots of blind corners,'' Dr. N says, ''and the upper floors are deserted at night.''

She and the CFA, her union, suggested that the university lock the building earlier, limit access on evenings and weekends, increase security patrols and provide employees working off hours with portable ''panic buttons'' that immediately alert police in case of danger. When officials failed to respond, she filed a grievance.

University administrators decline to comment on Dr. N's requests because her case is under arbitration. But campus Police Chief Kimberly Wibel defends SFSU's safety record. ''Campus crime has decreased over the past year,'' Ms. Wibel says. ''We've had only two stranger rapes since 1984.''

The campus has a ''very active crime-prevention program,'' Wibel says. Police are here 24 hours a day. We go far beyond what other campuses do.''

Wibel says a university can't close classroom buildings holding night classes, so a possibility always exists that criminals may enter. She says SFSU has taken steps to make Dr. N's building safer by putting locks on bathroom doors and will be installing a key-card system that allows only people with special passes to enter after 11 p.m. and on weekends.

But the CFA maintains that conditions in the building remain unsafe.

Five years ago a campus assault would not likely have been defined as a workplace-safety issue, according to Cal-OSHA Chief John Howard. But incidents of disgruntled employees or spouses going on killing sprees inside offices has changed the traditional definitions.

In years past, national and state OSHAs looked at defective machinery or hazardous chemicals as the main criminals in workplace accidents. ''This is the first time we're looking at humans as the hazardous agent,'' Dr. Howard says.

The most common victims of workplace violence are convenience-store employees and taxi drivers, according to UCSF's Dr. Harrison. But teachers ''face violence on the same scale as correctional officers.''

This growing percentage of violent incidents as workplace injuries reflects a general societal problem, Howard says, but also progress in limiting traditional accidents.

''We've done a really good job at decreasing deaths from other causes,'' he says. ''Now we need to devote as much attention to this new cause.''

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