The fatal effects of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying isn’t just a buzzword. The media often dilutes the meaning of workplace bullying by applying it to stories about nothing more than a water cooler discussion gone sour. In the material handling industry, workplace bullying is a much more deeply-rooted problem than that.

In late September, ISHN reported an incident in which a worker was crushed in a radiator core machine at his workplace. His employer is required to pay $1.33 million between OSHA, the U.S. attorney’s office, and the employee’s spouse for the incident. The company instructed the employee to bypass the machine’s safety guard to adjust the machine and keep it running. Instead of operating the machine as intended, it resulted in a fatal workplace accident.

It’s merely speculation to assume that this accident was directly related to workplace bullying. With that said, workplace bullying is the cause of thousands of similar accidents across the United States. It’s nothing new. Since the beginning of physical labor, humans had to be tough. Weak individuals simply wouldn’t survive, so it’s ingrained in us to be hard-nosed during hard work.

Material handling, construction, manufacturing, and landscaping are all industries riddled with high physical expectations and testosterone-filled employees. It’s especially common to pick on the new guy, the small guy, and the guy that can’t quite do the job as well as everybody else. The forklift operator won’t go near his forklift because he saw a snake crawl in it? Call him a “wimp.” That new guy doesn’t know how to route the hydraulic lines in that machine? He must be an idiot. Is your coworker moving a bit slow because her back is bothering her? It’s probably best to insult her. Most workers have used these behaviors without considering them workplace bullying because of how prominent it is within the industrial culture.

Constantly tearing down employees isn’t beneficial. In fact, we’ve known for years that mental stress translates into more physical injuries. Why has nothing substantial been done to combat mental stress in these physical workplaces? Is it because management is fully accustomed to the harsh nature of physical jobs? Do they not recognize a problem? A story mentioned by Workplace Bullying reads:

“The bullying got worse. The forklift operator says the foreman frequently teased him, spread rumors that he drank on the job and made him work alone, which was unsafe. The forklift operator won a second harassment charge and the foreman received counseling.

But despite the worker’s pleas, management ordered him to stay on the same shift as his tormentor. He knew he couldn’t.

“From the start, the new foreman laid extra duties on the forklift operator because, he told other workers, the guy needed to shape up. In an argument one day, the foreman threatened to fire him.

“He was spitting on me as we talked,’ says the operator, who had been in the job for 12 years. “I charged him with harassment, but nothing happened. It was just my word against his.’

(The foreman was good buddies with the top bosses.)

My blood pressure was already at stroke level,’ says the man, who took a health leave.

He dreads returning, he says, but he lives in a small town with few job opportunities. “I’ve lost money, sleep and my health over this, and they get away with it. It’s not fair.’

Why did the foreman bully him?

“He was just a guy who needed to feel power,’ the forklift operator replied. “It went to his head.’

Bullies tend to be insecure about their own identity and self-worth, speculates Carol Pye, a Halifax clinical psychologist studying the issue. “It’s a sad but common aspect of human dynamics. Some people feel better diminishing someone else.’

Bullies may be master manipulators and communicators, but register low in self-awareness, impulse control, empathy and sense of justice, says Namie, co-author of The Bully At Work. “Their social development is incomplete. They’re half-baked.’

A more recent story by Transport & Logistics News covers a case of forklift safety where the management of a material handling company ridiculed an employee for sidelining two defective forklifts. The reverse warning beepers on the forklifts had malfunctioned, and the employee properly deemed them unsafe for use. Upper management suspended the employee, insisting that the forklifts should continue to be used despite the safety flaws. The company was charged and forced to pay damages to the employee.

That story should be an inspiration to many bullied employees. Taking the first step to report workplace bullying is by far the hardest. The peer pressure associated with reporting incidents to the authorities is astounding. Most workplace incidents don’t get reported for fear of being fired and ridiculed. Even incidents in which an employee is certain they will be injured, they are more than likely not going to report it.

 There is one profession in which losing your life is an immediate concern – the military. These men and women fight to preserve our rights every day. One of those rights is being comfortable in your job, and having the ability to report workplace bullying. No citizen should lose their life because of their job. So how can we start changing the culture?

How To Stop Workplace Bullying

Set a foundation
Without a proper workplace foundation, implementing new tools for a safer company will be extremely difficult. There is a substantial growth in companies implementing organizational systems such as 5S that are proven to reduce workplace injury and generally efficiency. Of course this requires that upper management is open to reducing workplace bullying.

Incentivize feedback
Most workers that are bullied won’t report it. It’s imperative to not punish employees, but rather reward them for making your workplace safer. Ultimately, a safer company with happier employees is much more efficient.

Set an example
When things have already gotten out of hand, workplace bullying seminars don’t work. The “alpha male” mentality is still very much at play. Often times having your employees sit through safety meetings is similar to rounding up high school football players to watch a film on. They’ll assume it’s a big joke. Sometimes all it takes one person to take the seminars seriously for everyone else to follow suit. Be that example. Take a Lesson from Our Youth

Millennials Have The Power To Banish Workplace Bullying. Kids and young adults today are well-informed about bullying. They’re taught the stresses an individual faces when they’re being bullied. They’re less likely to take abuse from a shop foreman over something trivial. They’re not going to be bullied, neither should you.

Know How to Report Workplace Bullying

Nationally, workplace bullying isn’t illegal. However, any threat or action towards your health will commonly fall under OSHA’s workplace violence laws. Those include:

  • Discrimination
  • Whistleblower Retaliation
  • Negligence
  • Infliction of Mental Distress
  • Breach of Contract
  • State Anti-Bullying Laws

Contact OSHA directly if an immediate problem arises. Remember that OSHA exists to protect your rights as an employee. Consult the Workplace Bullying Institute for FAQ’s, resources, and services. Contact an attorney if you are unsure of your rights.

Our profession can feature the worst in the world when it comes to workplace bullying. It’s no laughing matter. Hopefully our industry will continue to work towards safer, kinder, and more efficient workplaces.

Randy Teadt, owner of Premier Handling Solutions, lives to make warehouses run as safely and efficiently as possible. Premier sells a variety of warehouse equipment and writes frequently about everything supply-chain-related for material handling publications, websites, and his company’s blog.