As frontline caregivers we always put our patients first — we come to work every day to provide the very best care for our patients and we know that safe staffing saves their lives. And we know that patient outcomes are worse when staffing is insufficient. But it’s not just patients that suffer from short staffing. Studies have shown a correlation between short staffing and increases in workplace violence. And that puts our nurses in jeopardy.
According to a 2014 study, more than 20 percent of all nurses and nursing students have been physically assaulted on the job.
Erie County Medical Center LBU leader Sarah Ott is one of those nurses. One Sunday in February, she was assaulted while working short-staffed in her hospital’s psych unit. A nurse had taken the day off unexpectedly and management did not bring in a replacement. The charge nurse was on a lunch break.
That left Sarah as one of only two nurses covering all 18 patients on the floor.
A patient became violent and took a swing at Sarah’s face. Sarah blocked the punch using the PMCS (Preventing and Managing Crisis Situations) moves she had been taught to protect herself without hurting the patient. But the patient reached for her ponytail and slammed Sarah to the ground. She lost consciousness and suffered from a head injury that has already kept her out of work for six weeks and will likely keep her off the job for at least four weeks more.
Sarah says the other nurse on duty saved her from further injury with her quick response. That nurse had been caring for another patient who had been assaulted by the patient attacking Sarah. Sarah’s fellow RN got down on the ground with her to protect Sarah from continued assault. And Sarah says she was also lucky because a security guard — not permanently stationed on her floor — happened to be making his rounds at the time and came to their immediate assistance.
“I can’t guarantee that this wouldn’t have happened if we’d had enough staff,” said Sarah. “But it would have definitely been helpful. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about our safe staffing bill.”
Sarah said the hospital has handled her injury well and a big part of that is due to contract language she and her NYSNA colleagues won to ensure that injured workers have support and follow up, including assault pay.
She’s thankful that her brain injury is temporary and she is on the path to recover. Still, she suffers from unrelenting headaches and has problems with balance.
Sarah wasn’t the only one who suffered as a result of her assault. Her colleagues on the floor were also traumatized. Workplace assault can have a devastating effect on morale and can lead to high turnover.
Nurses at facilities throughout New York State have reported that violent incidents have been on the rise. A vital solution to this troubling trend is to ensure adequate staffing levels throughout our state. Staffing levels should be dictated by the same evidence-based approach that determines treatment for our patients. And the evidence is abundantly clear that safe staffing is key to the well-being of both patients and caregivers.
Additionally, NYSNA’s health and safety department has implemented a range of programs to reduce and prevent workplace assaults, including excellent training. “Violence in the healthcare setting” teaches effective methods to decrease the risk of violence. Our union’s health and safety representatives conduct worksite inspections and make recommendations on safety measures. They work with LBU leadership to create strategic safety plans and can join nurses at labor management meetings to help push for effective controls.
Too often hospital management puts the burden of safety on the frontline caregivers. But it is the responsibility of hospitals to keep healthcare workers safe. Some effective measures can be simple and cheap, such as putting in a convex mirror so caregivers can see around a corner.
Other measures include increasing security at entry points to the hospital so that visitors can’t come and go unmonitored, and adding physical barriers in certain areas of the hospital that protect caregivers.
LBU leaders should contact our health and safety department if they would like help developing safety plans.
And we need to continue to stand together in our campaign to win safe staffing to protect our patients and our colleagues. We’re not backing down until we win, because the safety of both nurses and patients depends on it.