An SEIU RN speaks out on regulating and correcting workplace violence

Published in the The Nurse Alliance Roundup on Sept. 27, 2011.

One of the most rewarding parts of working with union members is helping them to find their voices — and then use them. What is even more rewarding is watching one worker share a personal story and another worker responding. The discussion, frequently among folks who’d never met one another in person, is what can lead to change.

That is the case with the following article written by Kathy Hughes, RN, CCRN, an SEIU Local 121RN member and Labor Specialist  with the Nurse Alliance of California. She sent this out after reading about a nurse in Albany who survived a brutal beating and went on to publicly tell her story.

If you are ready to join Kathy in speaking up around this issue, please write to: Richard.Negri@seiu.org

RN Kathy HughesRead Kathy’s piece below:

With the resources we have at our disposal as members of one of the largest unions in the world, now is the time for our voices to get heard around the workplace violence we contend with every day of the week.

We’re told that nursing is one the most respected and trusted professions. If this is the case, then why is it when one of us is beaten or killed on the job, we are in the news for a day or two, and then go back to our “norms?” When a police officer is killed on the job or a politician is gunned down during a public speech or appearance, it creates a public uproar, outcry and manifests us all to have a drop more sympathy than we would’ve had before the incident took place. 

Meanwhile, if a nurse is killed on the job, the mainstream media engine will set off a tiny blip… and then it will disappear with barely a trace. I’m not equipped to protect myself from violence in my workplace. I’m not armed, radioed up, or body guarded – yet somehow a patient spitting on me, hitting me, stabbing me, and even possibly killing me while I’m on duty is still supposed to be “Okay…?” Really? Really?

For healthcare workers–those of us charged with healing the sick, wounded and diseased; those of us that accept that call to duty and let it define who we are as human beings–it’s not uncommon to spend nearly every waking hour advocating for our patients and their families. And at almost any cost, we are expected to risk our very lives each and every day just by showing up to work. Whether you’re an experienced nurse or a nurse who’s relatively new to our trade, you need to know this: we cannot accept violence in our workplace as just part of the territory. If that means we need to make a wholesale change in our mindsets, then so be it … I know I didn’t become a nurse to be someone’s punching bag, or worse.

To make matters more odd around this subject, the security where I work is simply not equipped to handle any emergency of any sizable magnitude. And frequently, frequently security isn’t even allowed to jump in and give me a hand if and when confronted by a violent patient or family member.  This is, hands down, a truly unsafe working environment.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a safe working environment for employees – that is the law! The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protects our most basic safety and health laws. While we are union members and have our representatives, it is incumbent on all of us to learn what our rights are – we cannot and wait for anyone to take this on for us. Though OSHA regulations are not always what we’d like them to be, we still need to take advantage of what we have by filing reports and piping up around violence in our workplace.

The good news about being unionized in this area is that we don’t have to do this alone. We can (and should) report issues to our union representatives, who in turn will help us get our complaints in front of OSHA. Without a union, workers have the same rights, however, our considerable advantage is that we have the backing of the strongest, most powerful union on the planet whenever we file any type of complaint.

Back on the ranch: Where do people think the mentally ill, convicted criminals and gang bangers who need hospital care go?  Who do they think cares for them? Do they think we wear flak jackets, helmets, or other heavy-duty protective gear?  I’m just a nurse with a stethoscope, rubber gloves and support hose …well, you get the picture. Like you, I most likely haven’t been trained in de-escalating threats of violence, let alone taught any self-defense techniques. And if I did turn to self-defense to protect myself in the event I was being attacked while at work, I’d most likely, at the very least, be immediately terminated for laying hands on a patient.

The bottom line is this: there is no real training offered to protect healthcare workers from violence in an ever-increasing violent society. I used to work as a payroll clerk for a construction company and hear people talk about workplace protections. The guys used to complain that if OSHA made them any more safe they wouldn’t be able to get any work done.

In our case as nurses, we simply do not have comprehensive regulations protecting us from workplace violence. Why is that? The answer to that question can take volumes–but for the most part, it appears that OSHA just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

Another one of our stumbling blocks in pushing OSHA toward proposing regulations around workplace violence is found in the Bureau of Labor Statistics – or BLS. The BLS is responsible for, among other things, gathering data. When the BLS get workplace violence reports from hospitals, nursing homes and prisons – the reports just don’t seem to be too meaty, at least meaty enough to move OSHA to action. This one simple phenomenon, I hate say it, is OUR FAULT.

If we don’t report to our local union and the facility’s management, how will anyone know what we’re experiencing? If another nurse tells me that they didn’t report an issue because of the insurmountable paperwork in filing I am going to scream. Yes, the paperwork is absurd, but for any nurse to think they should just be OK getting beat up or killed on the job is absurd as well. We need to make some changes among ourselves to bring on changes at the state and national level.

Our nurses getting beat up and killed needs to stop. What motivated me to write this piece for the Roundup was a story that ran in the last issue. A nurse in Albany was brutally beaten, survived, and with her union backing her, held press conferences to tell her story (and that of her coworkers). Her courage to stand up and tell that story is likely what lead to the patient getting slapped with felony charges (which almost never happens). Why is this important? Because reading about this nurse’s ability to survive and then speak up has opened me to doing the same. It is time we all become champions for this cause – the first step is speaking out.

Are you ready to share your story? Feel free to email it to Richard – at Richard.Negri@seiu.org.

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