Caring Shouldn’t Hurt

September 2014

Registered nurse Elizabeth Hawkins remembers the attack like it was yesterday. She was preparing to draw blood from a patient when she took a violent blow to the back of the head.

The impact temporarily blinded her. She crouched in the corner while a co-worker and the patient’s father subdued the patient.

“If my co-worker hadn’t been there, I probably would have been killed,” Hawkins, a UNAC/UHCP member in Riverside, says.

Health care workers, along with social services workers such as police officers, are assaulted on the job more than any other job category. A recent survey by UNAC/UHCP produced shocking results: 13 percent of surveyed members reported they experience violent assaults in the workplace every day.

“I am assaulted by psych patients almost daily,” said Marjorie Mitchell, a UNAC/UHCP emergency nurse in San Diego. “Two years ago I was kicked in the chest, fell backward, and suffered a severe tear of my Achilles [tendon]. I still have pain as a result.”

A study published in May 2014 in the Journal of Emergency Nursing found that 97 percent of emergency nurse respondents had been subject to workplace violence.

Threats are a problem too. One nurse reported her entire emergency department was threatened by a patient who told them he would find their homes, butcher their children, and leave the pieces of their bodies in their front yards.

It’s nearly useless reporting these kinds of incidents to the police, who see threats (and sometimes even assaults) as just part of the job. But they can be traumatic for workers, who know how frequently assaults really do happen in the hospital.

“My co-worker lost vision in one eye, stabbed by a patient with a spoon,” said Shawn McCoy, a UNAC/UHCP nurse in a San Diego mental health facility.

In another incident, McCoy said, “three co-workers were trapped behind the nurses’ desk after a patient shattered a window with a chair. Glass was everywhere.

“The nurses called the ‘code’ for patient attack over the hospital public address system—and were reprimanded for doing so at 3 a.m. and disturbing patients.”

The problem has been on the radar for decades, yet gone unfixed. The journal Workplace Health & Safety identified workplace violence as an emerging hazard in health care some 22 years ago. And “Workplace Violence in Health Care: Recognized but not Regulated” appeared in 2004 in the Online Journal of Nursing. But 10 years later, the problems they described remain.

By 2011, violence in the ER had become so commonplace that the Los Angeles Times reported some workers saw it as “an unavoidable part of the job.” The issue was back in the news this April, when nurses at two separate Los Angeles County hospitals were stabbed—one with a pen, the other with a knife.

Violence doesn’t need to be part of our jobs. You can help us fight for protections by completing our workplace violence survey at unacuhcp.org/wpvsurvey.

Look for additional articles about this campaign in future issues of The Voice newsletter.