Workers Share Workplace Violence Stories, Win Commitment for Federal OSHA Standard

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration held a stakeholder meeting last week on preventing workplace violence in health care and social assistance—industries where nurses, social workers, emergency response workers, home care workers, psychiatric aides and others are on the front line.

At the start of the meeting, OSHA announced that the agency was accepting the petitions unions had submitted to the Department of Labor on July 11 and July 12 and would commence rule making on a workplace violence standard to protect workers in health care and social assistance. This announcement is a strong commitment by the agency to help protect caregivers of this nation from violence on the job. By the end of the day, OSHA recognized the universal consensus by unions, academics, workers and health facility managers on the need for a workplace violence standard.

Union members shared their personal experiences of violence on the job, including physical attacks that have left many of them permanently disabled and stalking incidents from which they remain emotionally traumatized. A common message was repeated by members: “My assault was predictable and preventable.” Here are several worker experiences that were shared throughout the day:

Helene Andrews, a psychiatric registered nurse with the AFT, was punched in the jaw by her male patient so hard that she was knocked to the floor; she broke her pelvis and still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Helene was not aware of the patient’s violent history because there was no chart-flagging system in place.

Allysha Shin, a registered nurse with National Nurses United (NNU), was kicked in the chest and stomach multiple times by a patient. "Were it not for the patient’s loud screaming and cursing, my co-workers may not have known to come help me." Because there were not enough properly trained personnel on staff, other staff had to leave their acute patients alone to help the nurse and the patient, who were both at a great risk of harm.

Ryan Fairley, a paramedic with United Steelworkers (USW), was attacked in the back of an ambulance by an overdose patient who woke up in-route to the hospital. Ryan considers himself simply lucky that he was not more seriously injured from the violent attack. Many in his field incorrectly assume that violence is part of the job, but Ryan knows that improved communication and coordination can prevent a lot of the violence he experiences on a daily basis.

Mrs. Jones, a health and safety representative with the UAW, shared the story of a social worker who was targeted after notifying a client her benefits were terminated. The client and her brother rear-ended the social worker’s car on his way to work, then killed him when he stepped out of his car to confront them. It was inappropriately classified by authorities as road rage, rather than job-related violence.

Brutal assaults leave workers physically and emotionally scarred for life. The rate of violence-related injuries on the job are astronomical compared to other causes at work. In the past decade, injuries caused by workplace violence increased 110% in private hospitals and 102% in private psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals. Two of every three of these injuries are suffered by women. These are preventable, as outlined in OSHA’s most recent guidance, using key elements of a workplace violence prevention program.

Workplace violence prevention programs identify serious hazards, as well as solutions—such as chart-flagging, increased staffing and improved communication systems—that reduce violence in the workplace and minimize the impact when it occurs. A workplace violence standard can require that employers develop workplace violence prevention programs, which are adaptable to each work environment.

Every administration has a duty under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to protect workers from significant hazards on the job. Unions will ensure that OSHA remains committed to protecting health care and social service workers, and developing a comprehensive standard, without delay. Unions will continue to fight for stronger safety and health protections on the job.