By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Workers in hospitals and other health care facilities are at higher risk of becoming victims of workplace violence than employees in other jobs, a new federal study found.
Kicking, hitting and beating are the most commonly reported forms of on-the-job violence that caused health care employees to miss days at work, according to the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative agency of Congress.
The Michigan Nurses Association, which represents unionized hospital nurses, cited two such incidents. In one, a professional wrestler being treated at an Alpena emergency room twisted a nurse’s arm and damaged her shoulder. In the other, a nurse who was eight months pregnant was kicked in the stomach.
GAO said, “Workplace violence is a serious concern for the approximately 15 million health care workers in the United States,” with psychiatric aides, nursing assistants and psychiatric technicians having the highest victimization rates.
“Patients are the primary perpetrators of nonfatal violence, followed by the patients’ relatives and visitors,” the GAO said in its report to Congress.
Laura Wotruba, director of public affairs for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said, “Hospitals can reflect societal issues,” including violence. “It’s a growing trend we are seeing in some areas.”
In response to the problem, Wotruba said, “We’ve seen hospitals taking measures to bolster security. To illustrate, she described going to Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital after her daughter was hurt at a playground. She had to go through a metal detector and be checked in by a security guard. A police officer was stationed at the emergency room.
At the state’s five psychiatric facilities, all newly hired employees undergo workplace violence training and each hospital is reviewed annually, said Angela Minicuci, a communications officer at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The hospitals are in Kalamazoo, Caro, Northville, Ypsilanti and Westland.
Unions representing private-sector and public health care staff in Michigan said there’s a connection between understaffing and workplace violence.
“Right now the top thing we hear from nurses is that the consistent purposeful understaffing makes it hard to do their jobs. That’s also one of the cause of workplace violence,” said Dawn Kettinger, director of advocacy and outreach at the Nurses Association. Her union represents nurses, primarily at hospitals.
And Ray Holman, the legislative liaison for United Auto Workers Local 6000, said, “There are staffing issues. We need more foot soldiers, less bureaucrats and less managers. We need more direct care workers, the people who actually do that work.”
Local 6000 represents physicians, nurses, social workers and other health care professionals at state-run psychiatric hospitals and prisons.
They are “very challenging populations,” Holman said.
GAO noted that health care workers don’t formally report all violent workplace incidents for such reasons as inconvenience, lack of serious injury and “the perception that violence comes with the job.” In addition, employers don’t always accurately report workplace injuries.
“The full extent of the problem and associated costs is unknown because health care workers may not always report such incidents,” GAO said. Those costs include millions of dollars in workers’ compensation benefits and medical care.
Although the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has overall responsibility for workplace safety, individual states can pass their own laws about protecting workers from on-the-job violence.
Such measures can include mandatory violence protection programs, employee training, evaluation of violence prevention plans, inspection of facilities and security.
Kettinger said previous legislative proposals to increase criminal penalties for assaulting health care workers have failed to pass in Michigan.
Another legislative approach would be to “hold hospitals more accountable for preventing and addressing the violence that takes place,” she said.
She also said the union feels hospitals should be more responsible to report assaults and work with prosecutors, as well as increasing their “de-escalation training — — how to handle tense situations safely and diffuse things before they get out of hand.”
In its report, GAO recommended that OSHA provide more information to its inspectors who can cite employers for safety violations.
“OSHA has increased its education and enforcement efforts in recent years to raise awareness of the hazard of workplace violence and to help employers remake changes that could reduce the risk of violence at their worksites,” the report said. “However, OSHA has done little to assess the results of its efforts.”
OSHA responded that it’s revising its enforcement directive and developing a training program to help its inspectors.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR CNS EDITORS
General Accountability Office report: http://gao.gov/products/GAO-16-11.
By ERIC FREEDMAN