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We can’t afford to lose one more nurse — passing workplace violence prevention bill would help

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“My children were very distraught to see their mom with a black eye,” said Luciana Herr, a registered nurse in the inpatient psychiatry unit at Abbott Northwest Hospital in Minneapolis, Minn. Herr entered a hospital room in early March to find a patient hitting and biting her co-worker. With no security or other staff around, she tried to help and was punched in the face twice and kicked several times. It was the second time she had been assaulted in just a few months.

Tragically, Herr’s story is all too common. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care and social service workers have a five times greater likelihood of experiencing a workplace violence-related injury than workers overall. This extremely high rate of violence is unacceptable, a fact driven home by the pandemic. We cannot let nurses and other health care workers go one more day fighting for optimal COVID protections while also wondering whether they will be assaulted at work.

That’s why National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of registered nurses in the United States, is fighting to get a critical bill across the finish line. The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (H.R. 1195) would mandate that federal OSHA hold health care and social service employers accountable for developing and implementing a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan, publicly reporting incidents of violence, and not retaliating against workers who report violence.

The legislation passed the U.S. House in the 116th Congress and was reintroduced this session by U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). It will come up for a floor vote soon in the House, and nurses across the country urge congressmembers to vote yes.

Planning to prevent violence means everything because once violence happens, it’s already too late. This truth really hit home when our beloved NNU member Cynthia Palomata, a registered nurse in California, was killed by her patient in 2010. Countless nurses across the country are attacked physically and verbally each year, and the violence may be growing. A November 2020 National Nurses United survey of 15,000 registered nurses across the country found that 20 percent of respondents reported an increase in workplace violence during the pandemic.

It’s important to remember that when nurses aren’t safe, patients, visitors, and family members are also not safe. Violence can harm anyone in the vicinity.

According to Herr, staffing at an optimal level, adding security, and making sure patients are assessed and placed where they are best served are examples of actions her employer could take to curb violence before it happens. But there is no federal mandate for health care and social service employers to have a comprehensive, unit-specific prevention plan. This bill will establish one. In our profit-driven health care system, employers will never invest in prevention unless they are held accountable.

“All I got was an ‘I am sorry that happened to you,’” said Melanie Autrey, a general surgery registered nurse at Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., who — along with her co-worker — was attacked in January by a patient with dementia. “It made me feel like I was not safe working here. It made me feel like ‘What does it take?’”

In Autrey’s case, simple things may have helped, like the hospital investing in “sitters,” staff who can watch over patients in need of supervision and notice changes in behavior before a patient grows violent. There are so many clear actions that health care employers can take to prevent violence from happening and to ensure nurses can focus on caring for patients, not on wondering whether they will be hurt or killed on the job. But if we don’t hold profit-driven employers accountable, they will never change.

As of early April, more than 3,570 registered nurses and other health care workers have already died of COVID-19. We can’t afford to lose one more — not to the virus, not to violence, not to preventable causes. Congress must pass the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act without delay.

Bonnie Castillo, RN, is Executive Director of National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the United States.

Tags Joe Courtney Workplace violence

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