On November 21, 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 251 to 158 to pass H.R. 1309, the “Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Worker Act.” That bill now goes to the Senate.
Essentially, the bill directs the Department of Labor to address workplace violence in the healthcare and social service sectors by developing a comprehensive plan for protecting workers in those fields. Whether this particular bill becomes law is still uncertain due to political considerations, but it at least recognizes the real dangers healthcare workers, especially nurses, face in their daily work lives.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, incidents of serious workplace violence are four times more common in health care than in private industry. In fact, healthcare accounts for nearly as many serious violent injuries as all other industries combined.
Additionally, studies cited in a 2016 review paper in the New England Journal of Medicine showed 80% of emergency medical workers experience violence during their careers; and 78% of emergency department physicians in the U.S. reported having been the targets of workplace violence in the previous year. One in four nurses has been assaulted, and at least 58 hospital workers died between 2011 and 2016 as a result of what National Nurses United calls an epidemic of violence.
All of these stats point to the urgency of helping protect the safety and well-being of nurses, physicians, and other healthcare professionals.
Yet, even if H.R. 1309 does manage to make it out of committee in the Senate, get approved by the full body, and signed into law by the president, it will all take some time. It also will take time to develop recommendations to protect workers, as will implementing the mechanisms to apply those protections. In the meantime, nurses, physicians and others will continue to confront violence on a daily basis.
For its part, the Joint Commission also has outlined a set of actions for reducing workplace violence in a 2018 Sentinel Event Alert. While some of these actions call for improved tracking and reporting of incidents, there is one that has the potential to make a more immediate impact on reducing workplace violence in healthcare: making changes to the physical environment. Many of the Joint Commission’s recommendations in this area are focused on prevention, such as enhancing security or alarms, creating better exit routes, installing metal detectors, monitoring and surveillance technology (such as cameras), initiating security patrols/rounds, and developing barrier protections such as keypad access doors and fencing.
Furthermore, it recommends making panic buttons available to make it easier to call for help if healthcare workers are facing immediate threats. There are two options hospitals and other facilities can consider. One is a panic button permanently affixed to a wall. This option may cover many scenarios, such as an active shooter entering the building, or patients/families getting in arguments with one another or the care team.
But what if a nurse or other staff member alone with a patient is grabbed or otherwise overpowered? If he/she cannot reach the panic button, how will he/she call for help?
This is where a dedicated panic button integrated into a mobile, wearable device can make a tremendous difference. Rather than having to get to a specific place in the room or pull a device out of a pocket to dial a number, a simple press of an easily accessible button can bring help in seconds – and perhaps save lives. It’s an extra measure of protection well worth considering.
Working in healthcare will likely always pose dangers. Emotions run high, sometimes fueled by addictions and undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses, which mean incidents can escalate quickly. It is time we recognize these risks and take bold steps to address them.
Having the federal government propose laws is a good step in the right direction, but we shouldn’t wait. Hospitals and other care settings should do all they can now to ensure that nurses, physicians, and other healthcare workers are kept as safe as possible and able to get help or get out of dangerous situations quickly when they can’t be prevented. Moving beyond policy to provide sustainable solutions ensures safety for care teams and patients alike.
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