New Safety Standard Coming?

Healthcare workers face substantially greater risks of being the victims of workplace violence than employees in other industries. The experience of Rose Parma offers a vivid example of the dangers they face. Parma, a registered nurse in California’s Central Valley, has had patients slap, spit on and kick her and even threaten her life, she tells The Atlantic. During one incident, a patient kicked her so hard in the pelvis that Parma (who was pregnant at the time) slammed into a glass wall and fell to the ground (her baby survived).

The trauma of that incident was compounded by her supervisor’s indifferent response, she said:

“The manager seemed so surprised and said ‘Has this never happened to you? Is this really the first time?’ As if it weren’t a big deal,” Parma says. The manager then told Parma she would see her the next day at work. “I literally thought I was going to die [during the attack], and they didn’t even offer me counseling.”

Employees at hospitals and other healthcare settings are five times more likely than workers in other industries to be physically assaulted in the workplace, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this year. A report from the American Nurses Association finds that one in four nurses has been physically attacked in the workplace in the last year. Workers in healthcare and social assistance were involved in 52 percent of workplace violence incidents in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The epidemic of violence may be at least partly attributable to staff cutbacks over the years at hospitals that have resulted in fewer nurses on hand to deal with potentially troublesome patients, including drug addicts seeking help in hospital emergency rooms, according to The Atlantic.

In its report, the GAO suggested that OSHA assess the need for rulemaking to address this hazard. With that in mind, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has just announced a “request for information” for a new federal safety standard that would lead to greater protections for healthcare workers. The agency has also scheduled a public meeting on January 10 to discuss strategies for preventing violence against healthcare workers.

What would a federal safety standard for healthcare workers look like? California offers a potential example. The state’s workplace-safety agency recently approved what could be the most-robust safety standard in the United States for the prevention of violence against healthcare workers. It would require hospitals and other healthcare employers to develop violence prevention protocols in consultation with their workers. The standard is being reviewed by the state’s office of Administrative Law and could take effect as early as this January.

Two major unions — the California Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union — say they hope the California standard will become a national model, NPR reports.

“California has now set the bar with the strongest workplace violence regulation in the nation,” said Bonnie Castillo, director of health and safety for the CNA/National Nurses United, in a statement.

However, complying with the new standard will be a serious challenge for the state’s healthcare employers, writes Barnes & Thornburgh employment attorney Evelina Shpolyansky in the National Law Review.

Among other things, Shpolyansky writes, the standard’s definition of workplace violence is “very broadly defined” and includes any threat of violence as well as the violence itself. The standard applies to violence perpetrated by “a wide array of people including visitors, patients, ex-employees, other employees, individuals who had a personal relationship with a worker and even non-facility workers.” The standard broadly defines “healthcare facilities,” which “leaves much room for confusion over what facilities will be covered.” California employers would not be liable for every act of violence against a worker, such as a mass shooting, but could be cited by Cal/OSHA for not following protocols, writes Shpolyansky.

” … The Cal/OSHA standard is by far the strictest occupational safety and health regulation in the country governing workplace violence for healthcare workers and, once approved, will set an extremely high bar for the federal OSHA standards …” she writes.

Regardless of whether or not a federal safety standard is enacted, however, the attacks suffered by Parma and countless other healthcare workers make it plain that something more must be done to ensure their safety.