Monday, April 26, 2004

Workplace Violence in Health Care on the Rise

A Formula for Disaster

According to an article in the NY Times, after years of decline, the number of violent assaults in health care and social services is again on the rise. The cause, underbudgeting, overcrowding and understaffing.

Following the murder of California doctor Erlinda Ursua by a mental patient last year, I wrote about the root causes of her death:
When voters, whipped into an anti-tax frenzy by right-wing radio talk/T.V. show wingnuts, as well as politicians seeking to ride the their wave, refuse to see the need to raise taxes to pay for needed government services, you end up with more needy people getting fewer services in understaffed facilities. While the underfunding has ramifications throughout society -- especially for the patients and their families -- it is the workers at the facilities who are literally putting their bodies, and in some cases, their lives on the front lines of these ideological battles.

Security guards and County Sheriffs are fine, but what's really needed is more staff -- adequately paid staff to provide proper therapeutic help, and adequately paid staff to provide support.
Apparently the problem is not exclusive to California
Incidents of workplace violence, from verbal abuse to assault, appear to be climbing in health care and social services, at a time when workplace homicides in those industries have been declining for about a decade, labor experts say.

"Clearly, workplace violence in these areas is beginning to come back up," said Lynn Jenkins, a branch chief in the division of safety research at the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, a federal agency that researches ways to prevent work-related injury and illness.

Ms. Jenkins said that the reporting of nonfatal workplace crimes was fragmented, and workers in fields like social services or mental health care might accept acts of violence as part of their jobs. But anecdotal evidence gathered by the institute points to an increase, she said.

"Basically, you have fewer workers delivering fewer services to more people," Ms. Jenkins said. "It's a formula for disaster."

According to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cases of workplace violence in health care and social services in New York State dipped from 1998 to 1999, but increased from 2000 to 2001, when the economic downturn hit.

In health care, the bureau said, cases of workplace violence rose to 16.5 per 10,000 full-time workers in 2001 from 13.7 per 10,000 in 2000.

Cases of violence in social services increased to 35.4 per 10,000 employees in 2001 from 25.6 per 10,000 in 2000.
Although federal OSHA has issued guidelines to assist health care and social service workers to prevent workplace violence, OSHA does not currently cite employers for failure to prevent an environment that may lead to assaults.

New York unions representing public employees are urging the state to take action
Last year, a group of unions proposed standards for diminishing workplace violence for public employees to the New York State Department of Labor's Hazard Abatement Board, which makes recommendations on health and safety standards.

The proposed standards include definitions of violence and steps employers should take to create a safe workplace, ranging from drafting antiviolence policies to employee training. The board held public information sessions on the proposed standards and is reviewing the information it gathered, according to a spokeswoman for the Labor Department, Christine Burling.

Labor advocates say it is important for workers to recognize that workplace violence can take many forms.
More information on workplace violence in health care and social services here, here and here.