Escalating Workplace Violence Rocks Hospitals

Across the country, many doctors, nurses and other health care workers have remained silent about what is being called an epidemic of violence against them. The violent outbursts come from patients and patients’ families. And for years, it has been considered part of the job.

Many health care workers say the physical and verbal abuse come primarily from patients, some of whom are disoriented because of illness or medication. Sometimes nurses and doctors are abused by family members who are on edge because their loved one is ill.

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. And a poll conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians in August found nearly half of emergency physician respondents reported having been physically assaulted. More than 60% of them said the assault occurred within the previous year.

There is still a code of silence in health care, said Michelle Mahon, a representative of the labor group National Nurses United. “What happens if they do report it?” she said. “In some cases, unfortunately, they are treated as if they are the ones who don’t know how to do their job. Or that it’s their fault that this happened.”

Groups representing doctors and nurses say that, while the voluntary safety improvements that some hospitals have enacted are a good first step, more needs to be done. The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, introduced last fall in Congress, would require hospitals to implement plans to prevent violence. And any hospital could face fines for not reporting incidents to OSHA, Mahon said.