In May, I had the privilege of introducing U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), to 160 emergency nurses who gathered in Washington, D.C., to advocate for legislation promoting a safe workplace for health care employees.
Because Rep. Khanna sponsored a bill — The Healthcare Workplace Violence Prevention Act — designed to better protect workers in the health care settings, it seemed appropriate for me to show him the extent of the problem.
I asked the audience of emergency nurses to raise their hand if he or she had ever been the victim of violence in their emergency department. I must admit, I was personally taken aback when nearly every hand in the room immediately shot up.
In reality, this should not have surprised me. The Emergency Nurses Association has undertaken significant research in this area and found that most emergency nurses are regularly victims of violence on the job. In one study, 54 percent of emergency nurses reported experiencing violence in the workplace within seven days of their participation in the study. That’s startling.
In August, I was again confronted with stark realities of the violence that emergency nurses face each time they go to work. Within one week, I specifically learned of three incidents in different parts of the country in which someone physically assaulted a nurse who was simply trying to provide care to patients. As ENA’s president, I reached out to the three nurses, listened to their stories and offered support on behalf of their peers. Both the similarities and the differences of these stories made a tremendous impact on me.
One nurse was repeatedly bitten by a teenage patient while inserting an IV. The nurse’s injuries were significant enough that she needed to take time off from work to recover. This nurse lives in a state where assault against a health care worker is a crime, so she attempted to report the incident to law enforcement. Sadly, her supervisor and a member of hospital leadership strongly discouraged her from filing a police report citing potential litigation and the probability of negative publicity.
This nurse’s experience is far from isolated. ENA’s research into violence against health care workers indicates nearly half (46.7 percent) of nurses who report violence to their immediate supervisor fail to receive support; many either receive no response at all or are asked to remain silent. This particular nurse was so traumatized by the incident and the lack of support she received that she chose to quit her job rather then return to that emergency department.
A second nurse I talked to was slapped by a patient so hard it bruised her face. In this case, the nurse’s direct supervisor encouraged her to report the incident to law enforcement, but the nurse refused because she did not feel it would do any good.
Unfortunately, that reaction also is borne out in research findings. Far too many nurses choose not to report violence in the workplace out of fear of possible retribution by hospital administration and the worry they will appear weak. What’s worse, many think nothing will be done to protect them as a result.
A third nurse received a black eye after a being kicked in the face. In this instance, the nurse was supported by hospital administration. He chose to not only report the incident but to press charges against the patient who caused the injury. Although this is the ideal response to workplace violence, it doesn’t always end this way.
ENA has long been a proponent for policies that strive to provide a safe work environment for all health care workers, including emergency nurses. We advocate for legislation, both at the state and federal levels, to protect our members as well as their colleagues and patients.
One example is the bill, H.R. 5223, sponsored by Rep. Khanna which will help create workplace that support health care employees who experience violence while doing their jobs by providing training for employees, encouraging the reporting of violent incidents and through the establishment of non-retaliation policies. ENA also continues its research to learn more about this problem in an effort to educate our members, legislators and the public on the significant scope of this problem.
The research ENA has already found resulted in the development of a Workplace Violence Toolkit, which assists facilities and nurses in developing programs to make the workplace safer. We also continue to provide education to our members through our publications and conferences on the importance of reporting violent episodes, while also highlighting ways to create safer work environments.
No person should have to fear for their personal safety when going to work. How many times are we appalled to see a video on the news of a clerk at a corner store being assaulted during a robbery? As humans, we should be outraged. Yet, thousands of emergency nurses are assaulted and injured every year at work and the story rarely receives widespread media attention.
It is my sincere hope that one day this will not be the case. Through advocacy, education and research, we will create workplaces that are safer environments where nurses feel supported to report violence they experience.
With that goal in mind, perhaps one day, the ENA president will not have to pick up the phone to console another nurse who became a victim of violence simply for doing their job.
Jeff Solheim is the president of the Emergency Nurses Association. Solheim’s career in emergency nursing includes experience as a staff nurse, charge nurse, manager, director, educator, trauma coordinator, flight nurse and state surveyor. Since joining ENA in March 1997, Solheim has served at the local, state, national and international level as a chapter founder and president, state president and pediatric/trauma chairperson at the state level for many years.