Attacks on health care workers prompts federal legislation

February 21, 2019

HARTFORD — In 2015, Helen Andrews was working as a nurse at Danbury Hospital when she was attacked by a patient. Her severe injuries required hip and femur reconstruction and months of physical therapy.

Union leaders say that Andrew’s story is not that uncommon: most health care and social workers have experienced physical violence or verbal threats on the job.

To protect workers, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) has filed federal legislation to require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish enforceable workplace violence prevention standards. Employers would be required to develop a plan to prevent attacks on their employees, tailored to their workplace.

The Congressional Budget Office has no estimate yet on how much this measure would cost.

The bill, co-sponsored by Connecticut Congressmen Jim Himes and John Larson and more than 20 other legislators, has received the support of national and local unions. It will get a public hearing in Washington next week.

“Our nurses and health industry workers care every day for the sick, elderly and the mentally ill, yet they often feel unsafe or unprotected themselves,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “Incidents of workplace violence continue to rise with 69 percent of reported cases occurring in health care settings.”

Private hospital employees had a higher incidence of injury and illness than workers in industries like construction and manufacturing, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2017.

Sometimes the violence results in death. In 1998, New London social worker Donna Millette-Fridge was killed by a client who attacked her with a knife.

“I started my career in social work in 1977 as an outreach worker for New Haven Elderly Services,” said Stephen Karp, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of National Association of Social Workers, during a Thursday news conference. “I once went to an interview an elderly gentlemen and there was a young man there who decided he was going to look out for this elderly gentlemen and came in with a baseball and informed me if he did not like what I was doing and asking, he would hit me.”

emunson@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson