Health Care Workers Push for Greater Workplace Safety

Health care and social service industry workers are more likely to experience workplace violence than others.

By Brenda Flanagan

“I was screaming basically for my life,”said Sandra Giancarlo.

She’s talking about getting attacked by a patient in the mental health ward where she worked as a nurse last January. She says the woman grabbed her by the hair.

“She was whipping me around by my hair, throwing me up against the desk. She weighed almost 400 pounds and I weigh 98. So it was scary. I was literally fighting for my life,” she said.

Giancarlo’s still recovering from surgery for a torn ACL and herniated disc. She’s among thousands of health workers injured by violence on the job — more than 11,000 in 2010, says the U.S. Department of Labor. In the private sector, violence accounted for 4 percent of workplace injuries overall in 2013, but that rate tripled for health care and social service employees.

“It’s unacceptable to go to work and come home hurt,” said Bernie Gerard.

Gerard heads Giancarlo’s union — the Health Professionals and Allied Employees.

“Violence is endemic in health care. It’s getting worse and we need to do things about that,” he said.

Workers in New Jersey recently protested against on-the-job hazards that can significantly harm or even kill employees. In 2013, workplace violence kept an average of four employees per 10,000 off the job in the private sector, but four times that many health care workers lost time at work — and it’s trending up from the year before.

Giancarlo spoke out in a PSA.

“They knew she was dangerous. She had assaulted two other employees before me,” she said. “I do not believe they’re doing enough to keep staff and patients safe. Even the other patients they’re there for treatment.”

Giancarlo thinks her workplace — which she prefers not to name — wasn’t secure.

A 2008 law requires hospitals to adopt policies to prevent workplace violence, but when the union asked its staff supervisors, one-third reported no comprehensive policy in place, and almost half saw no annual risk assessments, either. The union says New Jersey’s Department of Health should be on top it.

“The department needs to go in and make sure these regulations are being enforced,” Gerard said.

“The union got it wrong,” says the department, noting the law “…requires hospitals to create and implement a violence prevention program to protect their employees. The department investigates any complaints received regarding alleged non-compliance by hospitals or incidents of violence against a health care worker. We invite HPAE to give us a list of any hospitals it believes are not in compliance.”

A coalition of health care unions is working on legislation that would require higher staffing levels for nurses, but it would also require the DOH to resume annual workplace safety inspections.