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Our Endangered Health Care Workers

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United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard has a good piece on the dangers of violence on the job that health care workers face.

Working in a hospital, nursing home or ambulance is dangerous—sometimes fatally so. It’s not so much that a worker might catch a communicable disease, although that happens. The real danger comes from violent patients, volatile family members and sometimes even vengeful co-workers.

Last June, Dr. Henry Bellow, 45, a New York City physician who had been forced to resign, returned to the facility with an assault rifle and opened fire, killing a doctor and injuring five other health care workers and a patient.

A month later, after Indiana physician Todd Graham refused to prescribe opioids to a female patient, her husband lay in wait for the doctor and shot him to death in a medical center parking lot.

In the case of health care workers, who are more likely to suffer violence on that job than those in any other profession, we must fight like hell for a federal safety standard to ensure that more of them return home after a day’s work without broken bones, bruises, bite marks or gunshot wounds.

The union that I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), represents 50,000 health care workers including doctors, pharmacists, paramedics, registered nurses, and nurses aides, and we are pressuring Congress and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to improve on standards already enacted by states like New York and California.

We do that with both damning statistics and dreadful stories. OSHA’s records show that the highest number of violent incidents at work occur in nursing and residential care facilities followed by hospitals. Together, those two categories account for nearly three times as many incidents as the next two employer groups combined. The most likely perpetrator of violence in any workplace is a patient. Not an infuriated boss or disgruntled co-worker or aggrieved customer. A patient.

And really, these stories are horrifying:

Too often, nurses view abuse as just part of the job. A patient spits on them, kicks them, punches them or a family member berates or shoves them, and health care workers just take it. Bryan said he was not angry at the patient who kicked him. Geraldine Stella, a member of the USW who is an occupational safety and health specialist, explains it this way: “Health care workers are, generally, selfless. It is ingrained in them to put patients’ needs ahead of their own. ”

Stella cites as an example a New York psychiatric nurse who had been so badly beaten by a patient that the bones in both of her eye sockets were broken. Stella told the nurse that she should have no contact with the patient when she returned to work. The nurse protested, saying, “But I can help her.”

Stella, who works for the New York State Public Employees Federation, tells health care workers at training sessions that they must look out for their own safety as well as that of patients. She will deliver that message this week at the USW Health Care Workers Conference in Kentucky.

She will also teach the health care workers risk assessment skills. Although it might seem impossible to reduce risks posed by violent criminals, psychotic patients or dementia sufferers, some changes in equipment and architecture can help. Health care facilities can give every worker a portable panic button, like those “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” devices advertised on television, so workers can summon help easily.

Loose equipment, such as IV poles and water jugs, can be made stationary, preventing use as a bludgeon. Time can be set aside so that one shift can report to the next patients’ hostile or unusual behavior. Hospitals can forbid workers to deal with dangerous patients alone.

After the knife attack in Massachusetts, Elise Wilson’s hospital installed metal detectors. Within the span of just a couple of weeks, guards confiscated nearly a dozen knives.

Like so many of our workplace safety issues, we could do so much more with very little capital investment. But as a society, we just don’t really care and we elect politicians who repeal or weaken what workplace safety requirements that do exist.

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