News & Events

Nurses Demand Stronger Protections

By Priscilla Yeon
State House News Service


Health care professionals and law enforcement officials today testified in favor of a bill that seeks to further protect nurses from violent patients at their workplaces.

The bill, filed by Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security Co-Chairman Sen. Jarrett Barrios (D-Cambridge), requires health care employers to perform risk assessments annually and develop violence prevention plans based on their data. It would also direct the commissioner of labor to enforce such prevention plans.

A group of nurses wearing T-shirts from the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) attended the hearing and described to committee members how they were physically and verbally attacked by patients and their relatives and how poor workplace policies failed to protect them from getting hurt.

According to the MNA, 50 percent of nurses surveyed in 2004 reported they had been punched at at least once in the last two years and 25 to 30 percent were regularly pinched, scratched, spit on or had their hands or wrists twisted. Testifiers also said 48 percent of all non-fatal assaults in workplaces are committed by health care patients.

In a shaken voice, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center nurse Ellen MacInnis told committee members said she was attacked by an intoxicated patient and had been exposed to HIV and Hepatitis C when the patient swung at her and dislodged an IV. Ever since the attack, MacInnis said, she has felt sick, weak and depressed.

"I still have anxiety. It’s been a life-changing event," said MacInnis, who pressed charges against the patient and now works at a different unit of her hospital. "I would like to see some sort of legislation that will protect me and my co-workers. People don’t go into nursing to make money…I just want to be safe while I’m doing my job."

No one testified in opposition to the bill, but the committee received a written testimony from the Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA) opposing the legislation "as drafted." According to the written testimony, MHA supports the "thrust" of the bill but said the language would impose a "duplicative and redundant process that will be both time consuming and resource intensive, without accomplishing any measurable results."

Karen Coughlin, a psychiatric nurse at Taunton State Hospital, said she has faced attacks and threats from several patients. She said she once had a large chest thrown at her by a patient who was "destroying her room." Coughlin said she has been attacked with "hand-crafted" weapons such as a piece of sharp plastic from a torn plastic cup and showed to committee members a harmonica she found in one of her patient’s room which had its screws removed to serve as a "very sharp" weapon.

"What she was going to do, I’ll never know," said Coughlin of the patient who had altered the harmonica.

Due to the volume of threats and attacks she has faced in the psychiatric unit, Coughlin said she asked hospital managers to move her to another unit. She worked in another area of the hospital for a while but was later asked to be moved back to the same unit.

"We need something, anything, we’re looking to have something set in place, so hospitals take a risk assessment," said Coughlin. When she comes home, her children ask her if anyone had tried to hurt her that day, she said.

"I want to come home, I want to be safe," said Coughlin in tears.

Craig Slatin, associate professor at UMass Lowell, said nurses are often subject to physical violence, racial slurs and face threats from patients and the relatives of patients. "Managers don’t understand the seriousness of these issues and how they relate to the care of their workers," said Slatin.

The MHA said as part of the state hospital licensure regulations, hospitals are required to develop strategies for providing a safe workplace for their employees. The association says guidelines on prevention programs would be "redundant to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines."

Patricia Duggan, a nurse at a hospital in Cambridge, said the son of a patient she was caring for "just didn’t like me the moment he saw me" and threatened to kill her. He swore at her and then grabbed her, pushed her onto a stretcher and said he would be waiting for her after work. She said the managers of the hospital described her concerns as an "overreaction" and encouraged her not to call the police department.

Duggan said she called the police anyway and when she was escorted to her car after work, the assailant was waiting for her in the parking lot.

"My managers were furious at me, I was reprimanded," said Duggan. "Anyway, that’s how things are set up for nurses."

David Richardson, a Beverly police officer who is married to a nurse who was "viciously and indecently assaulted" by a patient, urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would prevent workplace violence.

"All these angels in scrubs need your unconditional support," said Richardson. "They are saving lives and we need to provide a safe place for them."