NEW YORK NURSE: October 2010
by Karen A. Ballard, MA, RN, FAAN, President
All I heard being shouted from the patient in the first bed was, “Duck!!” As I swerved to one side, a food tray flew by my head. The tray just missed me…I had been an RN only four months. Years later, a mentally ill patient would sink his teeth into my upper arm. It took three staff members to get him to release, but not before I had a significant human bite wound. In both incidents, I was told to understand that these patients were upset and, since I had not been very hurt, to forget it. The attitude being – violence comes with the territory of being a nurse.
Unfortunately, many of my nurse colleagues can also recount similar instances of being attacked – and many have not been as lucky as I was. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 430,000 nurses yearly are victims of some level of violence in the workplace. An OSHA report indicates that 48 percent of all nonfatal injuries from occupational assaults and violent acts occur in healthcare and social service settings.
In one month’s time this past summer, a nurse at Erie County Medical Center (Buffalo) was attacked and beaten unconscious and another nurse at Franklin Hospital (Valley Stream) was attacked, receiving serious facial injuries. Recently, a physician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital (MD) was shot, thankfully not fatally, by a patient’s son who subsequently killed himself and his mother.
When these events were being discussed, members shared stories of other similar violent events in their facilities. These stories did not surprise me, but I was very concerned that most of these instances of disruptive behavior, from verbal threats and abuse to stalking and physical attacks, were not reported to the employer and/or the local police. The nurses expressed concern about the violent behaviors, but didn’t believe reporting the incidents would result in a positive intervention.
Additionally, I have heard from nurses who seem to “forgive” lesser forms of disruptive behavior as understandable when patients and/or their families are under stress or when the violent patient is mentally ill. Violence of any kind – patient/nurse; patient/patient; employee/employee; employee/patient – is not acceptable. Whether or not a patient has a mental illness is not an excuse for failure to report any and all violent behavior.
NYSNA advocated for the new Violence against Nurses law (2010), which makes it a felony to attack a nurse in New York State. Nurses deserve to have the violence against them recognized as a felony-level crime. Prior to NYSNA’s advocacy for this legislation, law enforcement agencies were often reluctant to investigate complaints from nurses regarding workplace violence. Employers often discourage nurses from reporting incidents of violence. NYSNA has always supported a nurse’s right to seek recourse from the legal system and the passage of this law creates a meaningful imperative for the legal system to be responsive.
NYSNA will be following up on this legislative victory with educational initiatives to assist nurses and nursing students across the state in understanding and preventing workplace violence. We will be urging healthcare facilities to address the issue of violence by identifying and enforcing policies on disruptive behavior, including defining unacceptable behaviors; identifying employees’ recourses; and setting and enforcing sanctions to curtail and eliminate the behaviors.
As nurses, we must reject all types of violence in ourselves, others, families, communities and society. Remember, it must not hurt to be a nurse!