Healthcare workers and federal legislators are pushing for heightened regulations regarding violence against nurses and other front-line staff often face on the job as staffing shortages and other workforce challenges persist two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nurses have been bitten, punched, knocked unconscious and strangled with stethoscopes, "all while just trying to provide basic care to patients," Todd Haines, a member of the Emergency Nurses Association, said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
Haines worked in law enforcement for about a decade before becoming an ER nurse in Tennessee, but left bedside nursing at the first chance he got, he said.
"I've been verbally and physically threatened more in my 12 years as an ER nurse than my 10 in law enforcement," he said.
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., wants the Senate to fast-track the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, she announced Wednesday alongside leaders of the ENA and American College of Emergency Physicians.
She is introducing the bill in the Senate after it passed the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2021 with bipartisan support, including 38 Republicans.
The pandemic amplified violence against healthcare workers, particularly in emergency departments that are now busier and seeing longer wait times, emergency physician and nurse group leaders said Wednesday while sharing stories of what they and their colleagues have endured.
ENA President Jennifer Schmitz said the scariest incident she experienced was watching a patient choke her colleague.
"It's become part of the job, and that's what we're here to stop," Schmitz said.
Healthcare and social service workers are five times as likely to get injured at work than workers overall and 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.
There are currently no federal requirements healthcare employers must follow to protect employees from workplace violence, though some states mandate employers run violence prevention programs and others have laws penalizing offenders.
Wisconsin passed a law in March making it a felony to threaten a healthcare worker in the state, similar to laws covering police officers and other government workers. The state also has a law that makes battery against certain healthcare workers a felony.
The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act would require healthcare employers to develop and implement workplace violence prevention plans based on guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
They would also be required to give employees annual training, keep detailed records of incidents and submit annual summaries to the federal labor department.
The American Hospital Association has opposed the federal bill, arguing hospitals already have specifically tailored policies to address violence.
The lobby, however, in March called 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.
No federal laws protect healthcare workers like flight crews, though AHA wants Attorney General Merrick Garland's support for legislation that would make violence against healthcare workers a federal offense.
The ENA and ACEP support legislation both mitigating workplace violence and enhancing penalties for those who assault healthcare workers.
"We are asking for some type of security, guidelines, standards," Aisha Terry, vice president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said.
When a colleague was once knocked unconscious by a patient, "she didn't know what to do afterwards," Terry said. "That's why we need this legislation."