Some professions, like law enforcement, can expect to encounter violence every day. However, most people are surprised to learn how common it is for nurses to suffer violent attacks on the job.
These attacks can happen at any given time. They occur in hospital emergency rooms, long-term care facilities, and private homes as well as other places. Usually, the attacks are perpetrated by patients. Other times, it is the family members or other visitors who become violent.
For decades, nurses have essentially been told that occasional violence against them is simply “part of the job.” This explanation is beginning to make less and less sense as the number of nurses being injured in violent attacks is on the rise. Should nurses really have to accept violence as a part of their job when their actual responsibilities relate to providing care and treatment to ailing people?
The answer, of course, is no. Yet the fact remains that many nurses, particularly those who work in an emergency room setting, become involved in violent situations every day. In fact, nurses are the segment of the health care community who are most likely to be injured in a violent incident while on the job. What is it that makes nurses more vulnerable than others?
The answers are relatively simple. Hospitals and other health care facilities have far more nurses on staff than they do doctors or other professionals. Accordingly, their sheer numbers make them more likely to suffer an attack. Nurses also tend to spend more one-on-one time with patients than doctors do, and they are more likely to interact on a frequent basis with visiting friends and relatives. Often, patients are in the facility because of mental health or substance abuse issues. These problems frequently make people unpredictable and violent, leaving nurses vulnerable when they are providing one-on-one care. At the same time, visiting friends and family members are under tremendous degrees of stress. This makes them more likely to lash out at health care workers.
Attacks against nurses are most often verbal, involving yelling and cursing. Too often they turn physical, with nurses being scratched, struck and bitten. In particularly vicious circumstances, some nurses have received serious injuries or even lost their lives while on the job. Fortunately, legislators are beginning to take notice of the dangerous conditions that are affecting nurses.
In June of 2015, Colorado became the 32nd state to make violent attacks against nurses a felony offense. Texas soon followed suit. Prior to these new laws and others like them, attacking a nurse was considered a misdemeanor. This meant that penalties were relatively light, with many cases not being prosecuted at all. Now that violently lashing out at nurses is seen as a crime that is as serious as assaulting a police officer, it is likely that more of these cases will be aggressively prosecuted. With the public being more aware of the seriousness of the offense, it is hoped that people will think twice before taking out their aggravation on a health care professional who is only there to help.
It is an awareness that is particularly timely. The Emergency Nurses Association concluded in 2011 that in a single seven-day period, approximately one in 10 emergency room nurses had suffered a physical attack. Experts stress that this statistic only represents violent incidents that get reported to officials. The believe that many more of these attacks occur but go unreported because nurses fear retaliation. In several of these situations, the on-the-job violence against nurses is accepted and ingrained.
For too long, administrators have turned a blind eye to the violence that occurs in the workplace against the people that they depend upon to provide care. This fosters an attitude that seems to encourage nurses to see occasional violence as merely “part of the job.” Those who report violent incidents may be branded as troublemakers who don’t understand all that their job entails. Perhaps administrators will seek to replace them with other nurses who are more willing to just go along with the idea that violence is something they simply have to accept.
With the number of violent assaults against nurses on the rise, administrators and nurses have the ideal opportunity to work together to minimize these occurrences. The efforts can begin at the top, with executives encouraging nurses to report all incidents and to adopt a zero tolerance policy when it comes to workplace violence. Furthermore, efforts should be made toward providing victims of violence with the support they need to recover from the assault. A committee formed from personnel at all levels of the hospital can brainstorm ways to prevent violence and how to respond to violent assaults as they occur. With this level of preparedness, the number of nurses being victims of violence on the job should be considerably reduced.