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Governor Patrick Signs Bill to Stiffen Penalties for Those Who Assault Nurses and Other Health Care Providers

New Law Responds to Increase in Workplace Violence Against Nurses and Other Caregivers

BOSTON, MA – Surrounded by registered nurses and legislators, Gov. Deval Patrick today signed a law that will stiffen the penalties for those who assault nurses and other health care workers, one of a series of measures the state’s nurses are proposing to address the growing problem of workplace violence in health care settings.  The signing followed unanimous votes to approve the measure in both houses of the legislature. 

“This law gives us the tools to further protect the many health care professionals who work tirelessly to ensure the care of all Commonwealth residents,” said Gov. Patrick, who signed the legislation at a ceremony held in his office in the State House.

“We applaud the governor and the Legislature’s support of this measure, as it recognizes the increasing levels of violence that nurses are facing on the job,” said Donna Kelly-Williams, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which filed the bill.  “In fact, nurses are assaulted on the job to the same degree as police officers and prison guards, and earlier this month the Joint Commission, which provides accreditation to health care providers, issued an alert to the health care community specifically highlighting a dramatic rise in the level of violence in our health care system.”

Massachusetts law already treats any assault on an emergency medical technician while the technician is providing care as a separate crime with its own set of penalties. The new law, which was sponsored by Sen. Michael Moore (D- Millbury), and Rep. Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport), extends those same protections to nurses.

According to MNA Vice President Karen Coughlin, RN, who has been a victim of a number of assaults during her years working at one of the state’s mental health facilities, “This law helps send the message that violence against health care workers will be treated seriously.”

A June 2008 study showed that workers in the health care sector are 16 times more likely to be confronted with violence on the job than any other service profession. A study by the Emergency Nurses Association in the spring of 2007 found that more than half of emergency nurses reported experiencing physical violence on the job. In a 2004 survey of Massachusetts nurses, 50 percent indicated they had been punched at least once in the last two years, and 25-30 percent were regularly pinched, scratched or spit on or had their hand twisted. In fact, nurses are assaulted at work on a par with police officers and prison guards. Yet most hospitals and health care employers in the state fail to adequately address the issue of workplace violence and very often provide little or no support to employees who are attacked on the job.

According to Williams, the new law is an important first step in a broad-based effort to make health care settings safer for nurses and for patients. “As we celebrate today’s achievement, we also continue to push for two other measures that we hope the Legislature will act on to fully address this crisis.  This includes a much needed law that calls upon health care providers to put in place policies and procedures to prevent workplace violence from occurring in the first place.  We also continue to seek passage of legislation to set safe patient limits for nurses, as the lack of staff to adequately respond to patients and families concerns is a major factor leading to these types of incidents.”