In the past three years, the extent of on-the-job violence that healthcare workers face has received a lot of media attention and public sympathy. That attention has created pressure on political leaders to provide legal protections for the millions of professionals who dedicate their lives to healing.
Last week, Vermont became the latest state to take a more aggressive stance against healthcare workplace violence. The Associated Press reports that a new law in the Green Mountain State bumps up a misdemeanor assault to a felony when the victim is a healthcare worker on the job, with penalties ranging from up to a year in prison for first-time offenders to up to 10 years for repeat offenders. New York and Massachusetts recently passed similar laws, and the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA) says that several other states are focusing on the problem.
Will these laws end healthcare workplace violence? No. But they do reflect an increasing public awareness of the extent of assaults against healthcare workers. And, where there is informed public awareness of an issue, usually there is progress.
Let's review the numbers. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2008—the latest figures available—show 2,890 work-related assaults at hospitals. Remember, this reflects only assaults that are serious enough to inflict injury and force the victim to miss at least one day of work. Other BLS data show that for every 10,000 hospital workers, there were eight workplace assaults that resulted in missed work days.
By comparison, in the overall private sector, there were only 1.7 workplace assaults resulting in missed work for every 10,000 workers. An ENA nationwide survey found that between 8% and 13% of ED nurses say they are victims of physical violence every week. More than half (54.8%) of the 3,211 nurses ENA surveyed at three-month intervals between May 2009 to February 2010 reported physical or verbal abuse at work in the week before taking the survey.