Local Expert: Health Care Industry Slow to Comply with Workplace Violence Mandate

Veteran and retired State Trooper, now a Farmington resident, provides training for the most vulnerable of businesses.

Carlos Sowell particpates in a training exercise in July 2009. Courtesy photo.
Carlos Sowell particpates in a training exercise in July 2009. Courtesy photo.

There are some jobs that should only be done by skilled professionals.

Any job related to security – including the prevention of workplace violence – most definitely falls into that category.

Over the past few years, stories of workplace violence have made headlines all too frequently, including tragic incidents at health care facilities. Right here in Connecticut in 2010 a nurse at Danbury Hospital was woundedwhen he was shot by an 85-year-old patient. Eight people were killed and several more were wounded in March 2009 when a gunman opened fire in a Carthage, NC nursing home. The investigation revealed that the accused was targeting his estranged wife who worked at the facility.

“Facilities such as nursing homes are among the most vulnerable in the health care industry. They tend to be staffed by the minimum number of employees, have minimal security, and they are stocked with meds,” said Carlos Sowell, owner of Glastonbury-based CA Sowell Associates.

Sowell, a retired Connecticut State Trooper and a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve’s elite “Deployable Specialized Forces,” is helping Connecticut health care companies learn to protect themselves from workplace violence threats, under a mandate passed by the state legislature in 2011. Public Act No. 11-175 was signed into law on July 1, 2011, but many businesses have yet to comply. “Time, resources, and the prohibitive cost of many training programs have been principle deterrents,” Sowell said.

“I’m not teaching security tactics [like self-defense], despite having been assaulted numerous times during my law enforcement career,” Sowell said. However, he is using his background and experience to help organizations learn to identify threats in the industry and help prevent violent situations.

PA 11-175 applies to health care institutions with 50 or more full or part-time employees, including hospitals, community health centers, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes. By Oct. 1, 2011, affected institutions were supposed to create threat assessment teams and prepare a risk assessment. The threat assessment team, required to be comprised of more than 50 percent non-management staff, is tasked with developing and implementing a written workplace violence prevention and response plan. The plan was to have been in place by Jan. 1, 2012, and updated annually. Provisions for recording workplace violence incidents are also part of the act.

Sowell said that according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) workplace violence typically occurs in four principle categories: criminal intent (usually revenge or drug-related); violence by customers, clients, or patients – which is the most common; co-workers; and personal factors. Health care professionals are particularly vulnerable, he said, unless they have been trained in awareness and protective measures.

“Disconcertingly, safety and security protocols at many health care facilities remind me of where many schools were before Columbine,” he said.

Sowell trains healthcare workers using techniques based on law enforcement principles. He teaches employees Auto linguistics, a method of interpreting non-verbal communication such as body language, which helps protect against internal threats by identifying and understanding changes in co-worker behavior or performance so that assistance can be sought before such behaviors become chronic or dangerous.

He also helps to develop safety protocols for dealing with dangerous or hostile patients, so that health care workers and staff have the skill set to respond to such situations. Sowell will also perform structural risk assessments – such as reviewing the lighting in parking areas or recommending updated security systems – which can help mitigate risks as well as reduce insurance costs.

Training can also address external threats, and prepare facilities for the possibility of either shelter-in-place or total lockdown procedures like those commonly taught, rehearsed, and utilized in Connecticut schools.

Sowell, 44, lives in Farmington with his fiancé, a Registered Nurse. He grew up in Colchester, graduated from Bacon Academy, and attended the University of Hartford. Before graduating from college, he initially went to work for the Norwich Police Department. He then spent 22 years with the Connecticut State Police, in several different troops as well as the Connecticut State Police Headquarters, and won numerous awards for lifesaving, investigations, and hostage rescue. Through the State Police he spent three years as a school resource officer for the towns of Westbrook, Old Lyme, Lyme, Chester, Essex, and Deep River. His key responsibilities included developing protocols and contingency plans for school security.

In 2007, in his late 30s, Sowell also made a decision to join the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves and was deployed to Iraq very soon afterward. He spent nearly a year overseas, working with the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the British Royal Marines training Iraqi Marines in military and law enforcement tactics to defend and protect themselves against the insurgent threats they faced.

“While there, I both received training and taught others security tactics, to conduct risk and strategic assessments, as well as defensive and protective protocols for infrastructure,” Sowell said. He spent much of his time helping lead a security team tasked with providing security for the Al Başrah Oil Terminal, an offshore facility responsible for the export of most of Iraq’s crude oil. The terminal is responsible for more than 80 percent of Iraq’s total economy, said Sowell. For his performance and expertise, he was awarded both U.S. Army and U.S. Navy/Marine Corp Achievement Medals, a very rare accomplishment for a Coast Guardsman.

Sowell has been working as an investigator since retiring from the State Police in 2011, first as the vice president of Pinnacle Group Investigations and later as the president of his own company, CA Sowell Associates, but the move into workplace violence prevention is something he is passionate about. “I have always possessed the drive and desire to work in the capacity where I am helping others and keeping others safe. It’s always been part of my persona, even in childhood, and it’s the primary reason I entered law enforcement and later joined the military,” he said.

Once institutions complete Sowell’s “Workplace Violence Detection and Prevention: 175 Training for the Health Care Professional,” they can claim a safer all-around environment. That’s an attractive selling point to clients as well as potential employees. It may also lead to lower risk management/insurance costs, said Sowell. Individual employees who receive “175 training” can retain that certification even if they switch employers.

For more information visit www.casowellassociates.com.

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