Workplace Violence Shouldn't Be "Part of the Job"

by Sarah Springer

I am working on a campaign that is being co-led by SEIU Local 121RN and SEIU Nurse Alliance of California to get a comprehensive workplace violence prevention standard for healthcare workers adopted by Cal/OSHA -- the government agency in California charged with protecting workers from health and safety hazards on the job. 

The statistics on workplace violence in the healthcare industry are staggering. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more injury cases were reported in 2012 in healthcare and social assistance than in any other private industry sector -- 585,000 cases -- and accounted for 20.7 percent of all injury cases reported among private industry workplaces. Those numbers are just the cases that were reported; the BLS estimates many more incidents go unreported each year.

Behind the numbers are real people -- doctors, registered nurses, respiratory therapists, technicians, support staff, custodians, and everyone else who works in the healthcare industry -- whose lives are changed forever by the violence they experience on the job. Hardly a week goes by that I don't get a Google alert about a workplace violence fatality at a healthcare facility somewhere in the United States. What isn't often reported in the media is the daily non-fatal violence that happens at healthcare facilities -- the workers who are cursed at, bullied, stalked, spat at, kicked, punched, choked, and sexually assaulted. There isn't a healthcare worker I've met who hasn't told me about the daily violence she or he experiences or witnesses firsthand on the job.

There is a culture that is perpetuated in the healthcare industry that violence at work is "part of the job" -- of course psychiatric patients suddenly become violent, of course family members go ballistic when their loved ones are suffering, of course patients get upset and act out when they are in pain. All of these things are true. Too often, however, management's response is that there is nothing that can be done about this reality. Instead of putting controls in place that have been proven to prevent violence -- things as simple as providing adequate staffing levels so that workers aren't alone in potentially hazardous situations, putting security measures in place for its workers so that calls for help are responded to, and implementing basic engineering mechanisms so that physical spaces in facilities are safe -- management tells its workforce that violence comes with the territory.

SEIU Local 121RN (which represents 8,000 registered nurses) and SEIU Nurse Alliance of California (which represents 35,000 registered nurses in California) have been addressing workplace violence prevention through legislation, training, and advocacy since 2009. Last year, it became clear that the current legislation could not adequately protect healthcare workers. While California currently has important workplace violence prevention legislation, that legislation resides in licensing code rather than in labor code, which means that it is virtually unenforceable. The two organizations determined that the most effective course of action would be to petition Cal/OSHA for a Healthcare Provider Workplace Violence Prevention Standard that will encompass some of the most exacting elements of the current legislation and which will be enforceable by Cal/OSHA.   

We are one year into the campaign. Over the past year, we have been working on educating, organizing, and mobilizing our members. We have been collecting research on workplace violence through an online survey, personal experiences by way of worker stories, and names of individuals who support the campaign through a petition drive. We have been doing external and internal outreach on both the state and national levels. 

With the unanimous support of the 700,000-member strong SEIU California, we are moving forward with the next phase of the campaign, which is to file our petition for a standard with Cal/OSHA. We need your help. There are many ways for you to get involved individually or organizationally:
     • sign and share our petition
     • like us on Facebook and share our posts
     • follow us on Twitter and retweet our posts
     • visit and bookmark our website

In addition, if you would like to submit a letter of support to the campaign, either on your own behalf or that of the organization you are with, by all means do so. 

Contact me or the campaign's organizers -- Richard Negri, Health and Safety Director, SEIU Local 121RN, or Kathy Hughes, RN, Labor Liaison, SEIU Nurse Alliance of California -- for more information.