Recently, the House of Representatives passed a bill, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Healthcare and Social Service Workers Act. This bill, as the name suggests, seeks to provide legal protections to health care workers from workplace violence. The passing of this bill did not create much fanfare; we did not see any coverage of it on the evening news, nor was it mentioned by any of the presidential candidates.
We are here to tell you that this bill is badly needed.
We are two of the physicians that this bill would impact. We went into the field to help some of our nation’s sickest patients. Every time we work, we seek to provide care and compassion to people in need of vital medical care. However, we have learned that our job comes with another, unspoken, requirement: Stay out of harm’s way. We have been threatened with bodily harm by the very people we seek to help more times than we care to count. Some of them are suffering from psychosis and do not know better. Plenty of others are not and know very well what they are saying.
It’s unsettling, to say the least, to be threatened with physical injury and death by the people we are trying to help. But we count ourselves lucky because we have only ever been threatened. To date, no patient has laid a hand on us in anger. The same cannot be said for many of our colleagues. One of our friends is a nurse in an inner city emergency department. She recently got kicked in the chest by a patient she was caring for. She needed X-rays to make sure she did not have any broken ribs.
This violence is not confined to our hospitals. Health care is a dangerous field all across the country. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health care providers experienced workplace violence at a rate that was four times higher than other employees in private industry. In fact, the number of workplace violence incidents in the health care industry exceeds almost every other industry combined.
The House bill, H.R. 1309, attempts to stem this violence. It would require hospitals to “develop and implement a comprehensive plan for protecting health care workers … from workplace violence.” Currently, hospitals are not legally obligated to proactively engage in violence prevention for the sake of their employees. OHSA does offer guidelines to help hospitals counter violence, but these are purely advisory. They are not mandated and certainly not enforceable. H.R. 1309 makes hospitals take a proactive approach to combating workplace violence.
If signed into law, this bill provides employers with a deadline of 12 months to develop a provisional plan for protecting their employees. Finalized versions must be completed by 42 months. This bill also charges employers to promptly investigate violent incidents, provide training to staff, maintain records on such incidents and, most importantly, avoid discrimination against employees who report events.
This law will help doctors, nurses and other health care workers. Currently, there is no onus for hospitals to be proactive in addressing workplace violence. Most hospital responses — if any hospital responses even exist — are reactive. Reactions to violence fail to identify or counter its root cause. Proactive strategies are necessary to actually reduce the amount of violence that health care workers face.
Of course, like many bills that come out of the Democrat-controlled House, this one is unlikely to be passed in the Senate. Only 32 Republicans in the House reached across the aisle to support this legislation. With so little Republican support, this bill will likely die in the Senate.
Although H.R. 1309 will likely fail, it is an important step in the right direction. We applaud all of the congressmen and women who recognized that the levels of violence that health care workers face day to day is at an unacceptable level and tried to make meaningful change. All of us who work in the health care field make lots of sacrifices for our patients on a daily basis. One thing we should not have to sacrifice to do our job is our safety and personal well-being.
Gregory Jasani is an emergency medicine resident at the University of Maryland and Aamir Hussain is an internal medicine resident in Manhasset, New York. This column was originally published by The Baltimore Sun.