Workplace Violence in Healthcare: How to Keep Staff Safe

Healthcare workers face escalating instances of workplace violence. Especially in the COVID-19 era, caring for our caregivers increasingly requires healthcare organizations to rethink their safety protocols to protect their teams from workplace violence.
Workplace violence in healthcare

Each year more than half of all nurses are verbally abused by patients and more than a fifth report being physically assaulted. In total, OSHA estimates that healthcare workers are four times more likely than other professionals to experience workplace violence, making it one of the most hazardous workplaces today. 

This reality is exacerbated during the recent pandemic as nurses and doctors report escalating instances of threats and abuse directed at healthcare professionals. Susan Masters, directing or nursing, policy, and practice at the Royal College of Nursing, described nurses being berated by the public, saying, nurses “are being heckled at and verbally abused in the street and called ‘disease spreaders’. This is abhorrent behaviour, it must stop.”

Healthcare workers’ stories are emblematic of a growing and troubling trend in the sector. Let’s dig a little deeper to understand if the trend is reversible. 

Quick Overview

Understanding Workplace Violence in the Healthcare Sector

In a previous post, we identified four categories of violence in the workplace, which also apply to the healthcare sector. However, healthcare workers experience workplace violence at a higher rate than other professions, and they encounter unique expressions of violence that make identifying, reporting, and preventing instances especially important. 

Workplace violence includes both physical and psychologically harming employees through assault, verbal aggression, and, at times, reckless care of infectious diseases. 

As Lisa Tenney, RN, of the Maryland Emergency Nurses Association, recalls, “I’ve been bitten, kicked, punched, pushed, pinched, shoved, scratched, and spat upon.”

“I have been bullied and called very ugly names. I’ve had my life, the life of my unborn child, and of my other family members threatened, requiring security escort to my car,” she adds. 

While most incidents are verbal, assault, battery, domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment are also common, especially between patients and healthcare workers. According to a survey on hospital crimes, 75% of aggravated assaults and 93% of assaults in the healthcare sector involved patients and customers. 

Workplace violence in healthcare is most frequently caused by people experiencing altered mental states, intoxication, and diminished mental capacity. Similarly, patients in police custody account for a growing number of violent incidents. 

Unfortunately, many instances of workplace violence in the healthcare sector are vastly underreported. A survey of Minnesota-based nurses found that only 69% reported physical assaults and 71% reported non-physical assaults, citing everything from lack of confidence in reporting systems to retaliation as their reasons for failing to disclose these incidents. 

Regardless of the cause or expression, the consequences of workplace violence in the healthcare sector are enormous, unnecessarily costing providers time, talent, and financial resources.

Solutions That Start At Work

To operate safely, effectively, and efficiently, healthcare providers need to prioritize solutions that protect employees from workplace violence. Fortunately, there are several affordable and readily available steps that every organization can take to promote worker safety. 

#1 Make worker safety a clear priority. Workplace safety is a top-down initiative that requires leadership to identify it as a priority. Awareness is a prerequisite to effective action. 

#2 Train staff to identify workplace violence. Too often, healthcare workers accept workplace violence as a normal part of their job. It’s not, and employees need the tools to identify instances of violence. 

#3 Develop violence prevention programs. OSHA and other organizations have published comprehensive guidelines for creating these programs. Healthcare providers should use these protocols as a starting place for generating tailored prevention programs appropriate for their on-the-ground reality. 

#4 Implement a comprehensive reporting system. Many healthcare workers don’t know where to turn when they’ve experienced workplace violence, which is one reason that these incidents often go unreported. A simple, accessible, and intuitive reporting process ensures that incidents are documented, giving management an opportunity to respond. 

#5 Erect barriers for bad actors. When patients want to target healthcare workers, they don’t have to search long for their personal information, which is often readily available on people-search sites across the internet. Services like OneRep remove this information, making it more difficult for bad actors to harm employees. 

Legislation & Initiatives

In response to the growing threat of workplace violence in healthcare, several laws, regulations, and initiatives have been enacted to try and protect workers. 

In 2019, the US House of Representatives passed HR 1309, The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Services Act of 2019, which requires healthcare and social services employees to take specific steps to prevent workplace violence.  

At the same time, OSHA published an expansive resource kit for healthcare providers, setting clear safety standards by identifying risks and suggesting remedies. Of course, while healthcare providers have a legal responsibility to keep their workers safe, they also have a moral and practical obligation, making identifying the best solutions a critical step for every organization. 

In Conclusion

Each of these initiatives position healthcare providers to best protect their teams from workplace violence. There is a substantial need for these improvements. 

As one healthcare worker told The Washington Post, “people need to know what’s going on. It’s happening all over the country, and it’s not acceptable. I know we can do better. We have to do better.”

Therefore, healthcare providers need to evaluate the data and continue to improve. Importantly, they don’t have to do it alone. Contact OneRep today. Our experts are ready to help you begin securing your employees’ personally identifiable information and protecting their safety.

Iryna Slabodchykava

Content Strategy Manager at OneRep | LinkedIn