AHA wants healthcare workers protected like airline staff amid rising workplace violence

Irina Baranova

Dive Brief:

  • The American Hospital Association wants the Justice Department to take a tougher stance on violence against healthcare workers, similar to the way it handled an uptick in unruly airline passengers during the pandemic, according to a Thursday letter from the hospital lobby’s CEO Rick Pollack to the attorney general.
  • When airlines reported an increase in disruptive and violent passengers last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed prosecutors to prioritize those incidents, as federal law prohibits assaults, intimidation, and threats of violence that interfere with flight staff.
  • No federal laws protect healthcare workers from violence on the job like flight crews, though some states have rules for employers or laws penalizing offenders. AHA wants Garland to support legislation that would make violence against healthcare workers a federal offense.

Dive Insight:

Violence against healthcare workers is nothing new, though some reports suggest incidents are rising as patients and family members take their frustrations out on nurses and other medical staff two years into the pandemic.

Some 65% of nurses said they had been verbally or physically attacked by a patient or patient’s family member in the past year in a recent survey from staffing firm Incredible Health, with nurses attributing that uptick to pandemic restrictions and staffing shortages causing issues like longer wait times.

Those interactions take resources away from staff who are already stretched thin, and “can no longer be tolerated as ‘part of the job,'” AHA CEO Rick Pollack said in the letter.

“This unacceptable situation demands a federal response,” he said.

No federal laws directly address violence against healthcare workers. Last April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, though that bill has yet to pass the Senate.

If passed, healthcare employers would have to develop and implement comprehensive workplace violence prevention plans, provide employees with annual training, keep detailed records of violent incidents and submit annual summaries to the federal labor department.

Protecting healthcare workers like flight crews would lead to increased enforcement and penalties, and “there are plenty of states that don’t have these laws right now so this would help fill those gaps and ensure that this kind of activity is addressed in the most effective and vigorous way possible,” Chad Golder, AHA deputy general counsel, said.

A handful of states have laws requiring healthcare employers to run workplace violence prevention programs while others have heightened penalties for offenders.

Wisconsin passed a law Wednesday making it a felony to threaten a healthcare worker, similar to laws covering police officers and other government workers. Wisconsin already has a law making it a felony to commit battery against nurses, emergency care providers or those working in an emergency department.

Even before the pandemic, healthcare and social service industry workers experienced the highest rates of injuries caused by workplace violence, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those incidents have risen nearly every year for healthcare workers since the agency began tracking them in 2011.


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