Missouri hospital workers to get personal panic buttons amid spike in assaults

The number of assaults against the hospital's employees has recently tripled.

Front-line workers at a Missouri hospital are being provided with personal panic buttons after the number of assaults against employees has recently tripled, officials said.

Between 300 and 400 staff working in the emergency department and inpatient hospital rooms at Cox Medical Center in Branson will wear the buttons on their badges, the hospital said. If they are in distress, they can push the button, which alerts security on hospital computers showing the employee's exact location. The distress calls will also be displayed in the hospital's nurse call system.

The safety button system is set to be implemented by the end of the year and comes amid a "spike" in assaults against employees, the hospital said. Between 2019 and 2020, Cox Medical Center has seen its total violent events increase from 94 to 162, total assaults increase from 40 to 123, total injuries jump from 17 to 78, and assaults leading to injury tick up from 42.5% to 63%, according to hospital data.

Most of the assaults come from patients, according to the hospital, but staff have also seen several visitors become violent.

Not all incidents are reported to the police, as staff sometimes may feel like it's just part of the job, hospital officials said. "A lot of workplace violence events are underreported as staff don't feel like they would be able to do anything about it," Angie Smith, Cox Branson Patient Safety facilitator, said in a statement.

A new law that went into effect in Missouri in August makes it a Class D misdemeanor to threaten health care workers.

Cox Medical Center staff said they were grateful for the added security measure.

"We've had a large number of violence cases that have been reported in the emergency department that's been going on over the last three or four, three to five years," nurse Kimber Unruh told ABC News in a video diary. "Staff have complained of being spit [on], grabbed, held -- a variety of other things. So we're very thankful to have this as an option to help keep our staff safe."

Normally employees carry a radio, which they can use to radio staff who can then contact security, but the panic button "gets security to us faster when staff feels threatened or unsafe in this environment," nurse Whitley Gott told ABC News in a video diary.

Health care workers are common targets of assault while on the job, accounting for three-quarters of all workplace assaults, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Although the recent uptick at Cox Medical Center has not been directly correlated to COVID-19, hospital officials said they realize that frustrations are generally quite high right now.

The American Hospital Association told ABC News that nationally it has heard of "anecdotal reports of increased mistreatment, harassment and violence directed at health care workers in hospital and health system settings."

According to the Missouri Hospital Association, other hospitals are using similar tools. Every hospital must conduct a threat assessment to define the best strategies to protect patients and staff. Others include surveillance video and body cameras.

The safety button system at Cox Medical Center is being implemented through a $132,000 grant from the Skaggs Foundation.

"This project protects our No. 1 resource – our health care workers," Skaggs Legacy Endowment Grant Committee Chairman Nita Jane Ayres said in a statement. "Our health care workers already sacrifice so much but their safety should never be sacrificed."

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