'Epidemic': 75% of workplace assaults happen to health care workers

Rep. Joe Courtney is pushing for legislation to stem the tide of assaults.

December 21, 2019, 5:00 AM

Three-quarters of all workplace assaults happen to health care workers, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And right now, unlike other professions, there is no federal law requiring prevention, reporting, or action if a health care worker is assaulted while on the job.

“You can get into a cab or an Uber, or onto a train, and it says that assaulting an employee is a felony and you can go to prison,” Michigan State University professor Judy Arnetz, an expert in workplace violence in the health care sector, told ABC News. “And yet, people walk into hospitals to take care of patients every day and they are getting assaulted every day.”

From 2009 to 2013, health care professionals reported more than 730,000 cases of assault, according to the Government Accountability Office. And these numbers are likely low due to an issue of underreporting, Arnetz maintains.

There have been reports of workers being bitten, shoved, kicked, shot, and even killed.

“Workplace violence is in every health care institution across the country,” Arnetz said. “Large and small, urban, rural -- it occurs everywhere.”

And the problem is growing, prompting a push for legislation to help stem the tide.

A bill passes the House

In February, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., introduced a bill that would require OSHA to issue a nationwide standard for establishing and implementing workplace violence prevention plans for health care professionals. The bill, the “Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act,” or H.R. 1309, passed the House on Nov. 21 with bipartisan support.

H.R. 1309 would require “risk assessment and identification,” as well as action, tailored to each type of health care facility outlined in the bill. Each treatment center would have to establish procedures for communication, train its workers to “recognize high-risk situations,” record incidents using a “violent incident log,” and plan for future incidents by recognizing “past violent incidents.”

Experts like Arnetz acknowledge the bill’s broadness, but still believe it would be a positive step forward by simply putting prevention, in Arnetz's words, "on the dashboard.”

“Organizations would be required to do the bare minimum,” Arnetz said. “Record keeping, collecting data on incidents that occur, making sure that there is a prevention plan in place and that employees are involved in that.”

Nurses celebrated the measure.

But the American Hospital Association opposed the bill, which is pending in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, saying hospitals "already stress workplace violence prevention."

ABC News reached out to the committee, which said it was working on its 2020 agenda.

PHOTO: Healthcare workers experience more workplace violence compared to any other private sector professional. A bill passed in the House that could help protect these workers.
Healthcare workers experience more workplace violence compared to any other private sector professional. A bill passed in the House that could help protect these workers.
Peopleimages/Getty Images

Courtney pointed to the fact that 32 Republican representatives supported the bill, along with the Kentucky Nurses Association.

“We’re hoping that they are going to prevail on [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell,” Courtney said, referring to the Kentucky nurses. “Because, you know, saying ‘no’ to nurses is not easy.”

McConnell declined comment.

The rate of violence has increased

The level of violence against health care workers has increased dramatically -- 63% -- from 2006 to 2016, according to H.R. 1309.

Courtney suggests that this increase is due to the rise of heroin and opioid use, as well as an overall increase in “general behavioral health issues.” Regardless, he says health care professionals “didn’t sign up for this.”

If the bill becomes law, Courtney says it could help more than just health care professionals. By saving on worker’s compensation costs, lost time from work, and burnout, companies could end up saving money, despite paying for training and the costs of raising standards.

But for many health care workers who have promised to "do no harm," the bill has come too late. Harm has been done to them.