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Local union reps back bill to curb violence in health settings

November 24, 2018

Local union leaders, including a Lawrence + Memorial Hospital nurse, are applauding U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, for introducing legislation that would curb violence against workers in health settings.

A 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report said the rate of violence against health care workers is up to 12 times higher than it is for the overall workforce.

H.R. 7141, which Courtney introduced Nov. 16, would make the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, require health care and social services employers to write and implement workplace violence prevention plans.

AFT Connecticut Executive Vice President John Brady, who worked as a nurse at the William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich from 1994 through 2015, said he began working with Courtney two or three years ago.

AFT Connecticut represents about 7,500 nurses, technicians and health care workers.

The issue has been close to Brady since an emotionally unstable patient ripped a medication scanner from a nurse at Backus and beat her over the head with it until she bled.

Brady said he believes the nurse, who needed stitches and still is traumatized multiple years later, has not returned to the profession.

“Afterward, we found out we had had several staff members get injured by this patient,” said Brady, who helped his fellow nurses unionize in 2011. “The rest of the hospital isn’t unionized, so we didn’t hear about it until it was one of our nurses.”

Brady sprang into action, asking OSHA to investigate the incident and what could be done to protect employees of the hospital. To his surprise, OSHA told Brady it couldn’t do anything because no OSHA standard covers workplace violence.

“It’s kind of crazy: You’re protected from chemicals in the workplace, but not under OSHA standards from being kicked or beaten by a patient,” Brady said.

Lisa D’Abrosca, AFT Connecticut’s vice president for nurses and health professionals, said Courtney’s bill is good because it’s enforceable — workplaces that don’t employ reasonable plans to keep their employees safe can be reprimanded.

D’Abrosca, a medical/surgical hospice unit nurse at L+M in New London, said she also has seen colleagues leave the profession because they’re tired of being assaulted. She said while the “big” events like what Brady described get warranted attention, smaller but still traumatic incidents are more common.

“We’ve had situations where family members come in on a rampage, threatening staff members, and sometimes staff members get caught in the crossfire and get injured,” she said, adding that a person once tried to strangle her with her stethoscope.

“I’ll give you an example: last night I worked and I was almost bit by an elderly lady,” D’Abrosca said. “Luckily she didn’t have her teeth in but on a daily basis we’re punched, kicked, scratched. There’s no warning in nursing school. You have no idea what you’re stepping into.”

A 2011 state law made assault on a health care worker a Class B felony but D’Abrosca said that only applies if the person shows intent to stop the employee from doing his or her job — a fact tough to prove with confused or unstable patients or family members.

Even if the person does show intent, many health care and social workers are reluctant to call the cops on their patients and clients, D’Abrosca said.

Brady said while it’s not required, training exists to teach health and social workers how to de-escalate angry patients and visitors, and how to defend themselves if that doesn’t work.

D’Abrosca helped organize one such training, open to AFT Connecticut-affiliated health care union members, which is happening at the group’s Rocky Hill headquarters Monday evening.

Brady said hospitals also could ensure two employees are present when a nurse is drawing blood from a psychiatric or intoxicated patient, for example, rather than deciding haphazardly or based on staffing when to send two people in.

Both emphasized Courtney’s bill is not just about nurses, and said they’re hopeful it will pass given Courtney’s track record of getting bipartisan support.

“I can’t wrap my head around why people would vote no,” said D’Abrosca, who will be lobbying in favor of the bill. “But maybe it’s a lack of education.”

“Most people don’t know what we go through on a daily basis,” she said. “We make jokes and try and laugh about it ... but this should not be the expectation.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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