Lawmakers and health systems are reevaluating the violence healthcare workers often face on the job and measures they can take to protect them amid ongoing staffing shortages, burnout and other workforce challenges.
On Wednesday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., introduced the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, a Senate companion to a bill that passed the House last April with bipartisan support including 38 Republicans.
Labor unions in particular are leading the charge for enhanced protections through that bill, which would require hospitals to develop comprehensive workplace violence prevention plans. It faces opposition from hospital lobbies like the American Hospital Association, though, which are pushing for more penalties for offenders.
Some systems are taking matters into their own hands as nurses say the issue is worsening through the pandemic.
Norfolk, Virginia-based Sentara Healthcare announced a slew of new measures it’s taking in an attempt to keep workers safe from threats, hostility, harassment and discrimination that can lead to physical violence, according to a Thursday release.
That includes hiring a senior director of security with experience in law enforcement and post-9/11 vulnerability assessments for the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, the release said.
It’s standing up a new visitor management system and streamlining processes to evaluate and place psychiatric patients in the appropriate settings.
Sentara is also providing more training to security officers and other employees to help them learn how to deescalate and defuse potentially violent situations. Staff in emergency rooms, intensive care units and departments with higher risk for safety incidents will be required to go through a more comprehensive training, the release said.
Across all industries, workers in healthcare and social services face the highest rates of workplace violence, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In an April survey of 2,500 nurses from National Nurses United, the country’s largest nursing union, 48% of nurses working in hospitals reported an increase in workplace violence, up from 31% in September 2021.
The issue is well-known among staff in emergency departments in particular, who are now busier and seeing longer wait times, leaders with the Emergency Nurses Association and American College of Emergency Physicians said last week at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
Those groups support the federal bill along with others enhancing penalties for people who assault healthcare workers. Other groups like NNU support the federal bill on its own and say greater penalties for offenders will do more harm than good to patients who are often confused and vulnerable, according to the union.
Passing the federal bill “is a clear and tangible way for the U.S. Senate to show support for nurses who have truly been through hell these past few years,” NNU President Jean Ross said at a Wednesday press conference.
When asked whether the legislation has any support from hospital groups, Ross said “anything they see as costing them money is not going to be supported.”
The AHA has opposed the federal bill, arguing hospitals already have specifically tailored policies to address violence.
Instead it’s calling on the Department of Justice to take a tougher stance on violence against healthcare workers by protecting them like airline staff who have also seen more unruly passengers and violent incidents during the pandemic.
Baldwin brought the legislation to the Senate floor and attempted to fast-track the bill straight to the president's desk but faced opposition, she said Wednesday.