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Hospital workers have good reason to be afraid at work

As the nation's drug crisis heats up, another segment of the population is facing a different sort of emergency. Nurses, doctors and other medical workers are being assaulted and injured by drug-seeking, out-of-control patients on a daily basis.

Many feel that there isn't enough attention given to the issue and that more could be done to protect medical workers in hospital settings. Drugged patients aren't the only dangerous patients workers face. Hospitals arguably receive patients under the worst of circumstances — victims (and perpetrators) of violence come through the emergency room all the time. Patients with serious mental health problems are also common. When medical workers aren't confronted with an angry or abusive patient, they may have to deal with angry or abusive family members.

In short, a medical crisis can bring out the worst in people -- and the only people on whom they can take out their frustrations are the medical professionals trying to help them. Nurses say that they regularly deal with:

  • Scratching
  • Biting
  • Shoving and pushing
  • Verbal abuse
  • Threats of violence
  • Spitting
  • Punches
  • Attacks with objects

Sometimes an assault on medical personnel isn't deliberate on the patient's part — or, at least, not within the patient's control. Patients who are in the midst of a psychotic episode, hallucinating or in the grip of dementia aren't accountable for their actions. To a certain extent, nurses are prepared for these kinds of encounters and realize that it comes with the job.

However, nurses are fed up with the issue as a whole and want the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to help. They've asked OSHA to establish regulations that are aimed at protecting hospital employees from violence.

What can hospitals do to make life easier (and safer) for their medical staff? Workers say that the number one thing that needs to happen is to increase staffing to the levels where they can handle disruptive patients more easily. They also say hospitals could do more to identify environmental risks, like isolated rooms, a lack of escape routes and inadequate security. Hands-on defense training for workers is also a recommendation.

Medical workers who have suffered physical workplace injuries or who suffer from emotional trauma after an incident at work should learn more about their rights to seek compensation.

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