More needs to be done to prevent workplace violence

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Violence is a daily threat for 15 million healthcare workers in the United States, and a new report from the Government Accountability Office reveals that more needs to be done to address the problem. The report says the rate of workplace violence in healthcare facilities is high and the severity is intensifying.

"Preventing workplace violence should be given the highest priority," says Helene Andrews, a registered nurse at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut (pictured below at the press conference). Andrews, a member of the Danbury Nurses Unit/AFT Connecticut, was one of a number of health professionals who traveled to Washington, D.C., to join members of Congress on April 14 to unveil the results of the GAO's two-year study. The agency examined the prevalence of workplace violence in healthcare facilities and reviewed efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and states to address this problem.

Helene AndrewsAndrews was assaulted by a patient in 2009. During the attack, she fell to the floor and shattered her pelvis. "Initially, I couldn't comprehend what had happened," she said. The aftermath was difficult and painful. Andrews says physical recovery took more than six months, but she remains traumatized and vulnerable from the attack, although she continues to work.

Andrews decided to share her story because she feels her injury was preventable. "The patient had a history of violence, but I was not made aware of it," she says. A series of injuries at Andrews' hospital led OSHA to conduct an inspection, and the hospital was issued a citation in July 2010. After that, the hospital took positive steps to establish a violence-prevention program, and now patients with a history of violence are documented. But more must be done, says Andrews. She and other healthcare workers are calling on OSHA to pursue a rule on preventing workplace violence in the healthcare industry.

Stories like Andrews' need to be told in order to put a spotlight on this issue, said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). "No worker should ever have to fear facing violence on the job. These professionals do vital work in hospitals and other health settings to care for our loved ones, our neighbors and our communities. I'm going to be working hard with my colleagues and stakeholders to help create a strong national standard that protects our workers once and for all."

The GAO report found that OSHA's General Duty clause is not enough to protect healthcare workers, said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). "Healthcare workers need the benefit of a stronger enforcement mechanism."

The GAO report offers these three recommendations for OSHA:

  • Improve training for inspectors on developing citations for workplace violence hazards.
  • Follow up on hazard alert letters to determine whether an employer has implemented steps to prevent workplace violence, or if a follow-up inspection is needed.
  • Assess the results of its current efforts to determine whether additional action, including development of a standard, is needed.

"It's time to treat workplace violence in healthcare settings with the seriousness this crisis warrants," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "We urge OSHA to promulgate a national standard. Healthcare professionals, patients and visitors deserve nothing less."

Read the GAO report.

[Adrienne Coles/photo by Michael Campbell]