How to respond to sexual harassment in the EMS workplace

Any threats to the safety of EMS providers, including sexual harassment, should be identified and mitigated


By Caitlyn Armistead

Sexual harassment, while at times difficult to define and explain, occurs whenever an employee is unfairly treated owing to his/her gender. Male-on-female sexual harassment is the most widely reported kind of harassment. However, the incidence of same-sex and female-on-male harassment is increasing.

Cases of sexual harassment in the EMS workplace are regularly reported. Some recent incidents include a fire department officer making lewd comments on an open radio channel about an EMT, a medic charged for distributing sexual images of a colleague, and firefighters being punished for a sex scandal with a medic. 

There are two types of sexual harassment:

Quid pro quo. This is when an employee submits to unwelcome sexual advances or comments in exchange for a benefit. It can also occur if an employee remains silent about an unwanted advance on another person in exchange for a job benefit.

Hostile work environment. This can occur when the environment and organizational culture make an employee or employees feel uncomfortable due to sexually-charged behavior, comments or communication. This is the more frequent form of sexual harassment and includes derogatory comments, displaying sexualized images, treating one sex differently from the other and unwelcome sexual advances.

Sexual harassment, of any kind, is antithetical to the number one priority of EMS providers: safety. EMS providers should not tolerate harassment in their workplace and if you are subject to sexual harassment or witness sexual harassment consider these steps or actions.

1. Be proactive

Know your company’s policies on sexual harassment before something happens. Learn their definitions of harassment and what steps you should take should something occur. Never underestimate the power of documentation. Learn which forms and what types of documentation would be required in such a situation.

2. Be professional but firm

If an incident does occur that you believe is sexual harassment, confront the offender. This is especially important if your company requests that employees attempt to work out issues on their own. Everyone’s comfort level is different, and some people have difficulty understanding where boundaries are.

If you take something seriously, often others will, too. Statements like, "That’s not funny," or "Stop. You’re making me uncomfortable," can help clue co-workers or supervisors in to what you are feeling. Tell the offender what you didn’t like about their behavior or language. Document this interaction with a description of the incident, the date and time, any witnesses, and what you attempted to do to resolve the incident.

3. Make a formal complaint

If your confrontation did not resolve the situation, write a formal letter to your supervisor and request a meeting with witnesses. While gossiping about an incident is rarely helpful and can be harmful, if you are aware of other victims of similar circumstances, encourage them to come forward and file their own complaints.

4. Take it up the chain of command if necessary

After a reasonable amount of time, if you are unsuccessful in resolving the issue with your supervisor or if a meeting is refused, move your way up the chain of command until someone listens. Your service’s human resources department can be helpful as well.

5. File a complaint with the EEOC

Federal and state authorities are available to help. Bear in mind there is a 180-day time limit for filing an incident with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This should be a factor in determining how much time you allow for a response from your service. You may also be able to claim whistleblower protection.

These steps may not apply to a situation where sexual assault or battery occurred. If you have been sexually assaulted or battered on duty, make sure you are in a safe place, call the police, and notify your supervisor immediately.

About the author

Caitlyn Armistead is a teacher, AEMT and lifeguard. She has worked for a level 1 trauma center, several EMS services, and as a research librarian for a state Bureau of Emergency Medical Services. As an outreach to those who are seeking help and healing, she writes novels that address some of the difficult issues facing public safety, such as drug abuse, disabilities, PTSD, rape and domestic violence. Caitlyn’s blog can be found at http://www.caitlynarmistead.blogspot.com, and she can be contacted at: caitlynarmistead@gmail.com.

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