Workplace violence is a serious and growing problem for working people in the United States: It causes more than 450 homicides and 28,000 serious injuries each year. Workplace homicide now is responsible for more workplace deaths than equipment, fires and explosions. Two of every three workplace violence injuries are suffered by women.
Health care and social service workers are at greatest risk of violence on the job because of their direct contact with patients and clients. They are five times as likely to suffer a workplace violence injury as workers in other occupations.
Violence against health care and social service workers is foreseeable and preventable but the Trump administration has refused to act. That is why Rep. Joe Courtney (Conn.) introduced legislation last week that would require the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a standard to protect these workers. The standard would reduce violence by requiring employers to develop workplace violence prevention programs that identify and control hazards, improve reporting and training, evaluate procedures and strengthen whistlebower protections for those who speak up, which lead to safer staffing levels, improved lighting and better surveillance systems.
Today, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, held a hearing to highlight this severe and growing problem and the need for an OSHA standard to protect working people. Patt, an AFT member from Wisconsin, testified about her traumatic experience of assault as a registered nurse. She and her colleagues had tried to speak to management and press for improvements, but their voices were not heard. Then she was attacked by a teenage patient with a history of aggression at a county mental health facility. He kicked her in the throat, collapsing her trachea, requiring intubation and surgery. She suffers severe post-traumatic stress disorder and can no longer work in her dream job as a nurse. It was not a random event, but a predictable scenario that could have been prevented with a clear plan and better-trained staff.
Here are other union members’ experiences of violence on the job that could have been prevented with an enforceable OSHA standard:
Helene: An AFT member and psychiatric nurse in Connecticut for 16 years in an acute care hospital who attempted to hand a patient his pain medication when he punched her in her jaw, knocking her to the floor and breaking her pelvis. Helene was unable to return to work for six and a half months, had to go through rehabilitation and physical therapy, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. This patient had a history of violence, including previously attacking a social worker, but there was no system in place to alert her.
Brandy: A National Nurses United (NNU) member and registered nurse in California for 18 years in general pediatrics who was assigned to a 14-year-old patient with a diagnosis of aggressive behavior. When Brandy entered the patient’s room, the patient had his mother pressed against the closet door with his hands around her neck. Brandy called for security and additional staff assistance. They were able to safely remove the patient’s mother, but the patient threw a chair at Brandy, who was trapped between a wall and a bed. Brandy suffers from tendonitis in her right elbow, which makes it difficult to do simple everyday tasks such as opening jars, typing and hanging bags of fluids at work. Appropriate violence-prevention controls include ensuring that large furniture and other items that can be used as weapons are affixed to the floor in rooms with aggressive patients.
Eric: An AFSCME member and security counselor at a Minnesota hospital who has administered treatment to the mentally ill for nearly a decade. Eric was assigned to monitor a highly assaultive patient who continually attacked his fellow patients. The patient then turned his assaultive behavior on Eric and punched him in the right eye, causing him to instantly lose sight in the impacted eye. Eric managed to restrain the patient until his co-workers arrived to assist. Eric was rushed to the emergency room via ambulance where they discovered he had a blow-out fracture of his orbital bone and a popped sinus. He received 17 stitches, and his eye socket has never fully recovered. The hospital did not have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program that would have prevented this.
John: A United Steelworkers (USW) member and certified nursing assistant in California for 18 years who tried to change a male veteran’s wet bed when the patient became agitated and attacked John, breaking his arm. He was out of work for four weeks. John didn’t know the patient was prone to violence. At his facility, workplace violence comes from patients, visitors and other employees. There is at least one incident every week, ranging from slapping to breaking arms or punching. After John’s incident, the employer began requiring a note on the patients’ charts when they are prone to agitation or violence. Sometime later, the employer also began using red blankets on the beds to denote a combative patient so all employees would know when they interacted with the patient.