01/11/2017

Standard aims to cut violence against healthcare workers

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has accepted the AFT's petition to promulgate a workplace violence standard to protect healthcare workers and social assistance workers. Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels agreed with the union's stance that workplace violence is a serious occupational hazard for these workers.

Violence is a daily threat for 15 million healthcare workers in the U.S., which is why union activists, including AFT members, have fought for a federal standard that requires protections against workplace violence.

AFT nurses at OSHA hearingLast summer, a coalition of unions representing healthcare workers—led by the AFT and including the American Federation of Government Employees, the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO—petitioned the agency for a workplace violence prevention standard to cover all workers in healthcare and social assistance. The petition was the culmination of work started by the AFT in 2014, when it worked with key members of Congress to seek a Government Accountability Office study to investigate whether the voluntary OSHA guidelines for workplace violence prevention in healthcare are enough to protect workers.

The GAO agreed to the investigation, thanks in large part to the AFT's recommendation, and a report was released in May 2016. In addition, nearly 5,000 AFT members sent emails and postcards to the Department of Labor to demand a standard.

In a letter, the assistant secretary acknowledged the need for a standard to protect healthcare workers and social assistance workers. With the petition granted, OSHA is collecting information and took the first step in the rulemaking process by holding a public meeting Jan. 10 to allow participants to share their experiences with workplace violence, discuss success stories about reducing violence as well as make recommendations for moving forward. Members of AFT Nurses and Health Professionals were on hand to testify about their experiences.

Helene Andrews, a registered nurse in Danbury, Conn., testified about incidents where patients had attacked her and she had suffered injuries that were traumatic physically, emotionally and psychologically. "I still feel traumatized and vulnerable at times — feelings that never completely go away. Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that I believe my injuries were preventable," said Andrews, who is a member of the Danbury Nurses' Union. "I believe that OSHA should create a strong national standard for preventing workplace violence for healthcare workers and social service workers."

Banita Herndon, an emergency room nurse in Newark, N.J., described the mental health, drug challenges and gang threats that she and her colleagues face every day in the ER. Herndon, who is a member of Health Professionals and Allied Employees described a fatal attack and other incidents at her facility involving patients who were high or psychotic. "We don't have the panic buttons we need or the training that we used to get. Without a standard, the hospital's response is piecemeal improvements."

Darlene Williams, an occupational therapist and member of the New York State Public Employees Federation, read a statement from a member who is an outpatient psychologist. The member was badly beaten when she intervened to protect an elderly client who was suddenly attacked by young man who was high on synthetic drugs. Although this intervention saved the geriatric client's life, the psychologist received significant physical injuries and has suffered from depression, anxiety, and nightmares. She notes that better staffing, cameras, and work policies would have protected her from this assault. (Williams and Herndon are pictured above.)

AFT affiliate leaders John Brady (AFT Connecticut) and Bernie Gerard (Health Professionals and Allied Employees) participated in a discussion on the substance of a workplace violence prevention standard. Brady stressed the importance of effective mandatory training for nurses and healthcare staff on de-escalation and other protective techniques in handling violent confrontations, while Gerard described his frustration with the lack of enforcement of the current New Jersey workplace violence law. An OSHA standard is the only guarantee that workers will be protected, said Gerard.

OSHA has also published a request for information, seeking public input for a possible future safety standard intended to reduce employee exposure to workplace violence. You can submit comments online on or by April 6.

[Adrienne Coles]