Nurses lobby for protection against workplace violence

Daily Inter Lake

by Katheryne Houghton

Nurses and state officials met in Kalispell Friday to discuss how to protect health-care workers from what they described as a consistently abusive work environment. The meeting was part of the Montana Nurses Association’s attempt to garner support legislation that would make assaulting a health-care worker a felony.

Vicky Bird, executive director of the Montana Nurses Association, said this is the organization’s second attempt to pass a law to protect nurses.

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“Last legislative session we really didn’t have the time to prepare and the proposal didn’t make it out of committee,” she said. “As our laws stand, it’s a felony to attack a police dog, officers or sport officials, but it’s not to attack nurses. That’s wrong.”

She said the most recent proposal — which is still in the drafting process — would make it a felony to assault a health-care worker or emergency responder while they are on duty. She said charges would not be used against patients with a mental-health illness.

The campaign to lobby for the law also aims to increase public awareness of the frequency and severity of assault against health-care workers.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, spoke at the event. He said he came as a concerned Montana senator and as the father of a nurse.

“Nurses should not have to wear combat boots to go to work, but often times I know you do,” he said. “Before anyone else, you see where our country’s health care is flawed, where it thrives and where it is broken.”

Kezia Lovelady, 22, stood in front of the audience of less than 30 and described her most recent story of being attacked while at work. A Helena native, Lovelady said she began working as a certified nursing assistant before graduating high school.

“How wrong is it that a health-care worker by age 22 has experienced verbal, sexual, emotional and physical abuse while on duty?” Lovelady said.

She said while making her rounds several weeks ago, she stopped short when she noticed a patient standing naked. He normally asked for help when he needed to use the restroom, but this time he was angry.

“We rushed in to steady him and assist him with cleaning up when he lashed out verbally, ‘You stupid b——, get out of here, I don’t need your f—— help,’” she recounted. “However, because he was being unsafe … he had an IV in place and he was teetering with an injured foot, we were forced to stay very near him.”

She said a fall would have been devastating for his health. So, even when he bit into his IV and sprayed blood over himself and the two women, they held onto the patient and tried to talk him into sitting down. When he picked up a nearby object and hit Lovelady in the face, the nurses continued to make sure he didn’t fall.

She said by the time the security team entered the room, the patient had been calmed. “The damage had already been done,” Lovelady said.

Lovelady had just clocked in, so she had eight more hours of caring for the very patient who had attacked her.

“A safety plan with education and input from the staff to make our work environment safer and less volatile is definitely needed,” she said.

Bird said as the nursing association’s executive director, she’s heard people doubt the reality of nurses being attacked.

“It’s not just dementia patients — someone can be angry when they’ve waited three hours to be seen, if we don’t bring the right coffee, if we’re taking care of a patient other than their loved one,” she said. “It can happen at anytime.”

According to the American Nurses Association, health-care workers are 16 times more likely to face violence from patients, or clients, than other service workers.

In a nationwide survey by the association of more than 3,700 registered nurses and student nurses, 43 percent had been verbally or physically threatened by a patient or a patient’s family member. Roughly 24 percent reported they had been physically assaulted.

Sandi Luckey, a Montana Nurses Association labor representative, said the proposed bill had previously failed because legislators didn’t understand the frequency of assaults taking place.

“When we first brought it to the table, one man asked if it was actually a problem nurses faced,” Luckey said.

She said in response, the association put together two personal accounts of people facing abuse at work and handed them to the committee the following day.

“Then the response was, ‘This is awful, but how often does it happen? It can’t be the norm,’” she said.

Following the failure to pass a law protecting health-care workers in 2015, the Montana Nurses Association began collecting stories from nurses across the state about the assaults they had experienced. In preparation for this year’s session, Luckey said each week legislative members have received a postcard in the mail with another worker’s story of violence at work.

She said part of the reason state officials haven’t understood the experience of the average nurse is because most health-care workers won’t speak out against their patients.

“Nurses are trained to be the advocate for their patients, not themselves. Everyone knows nurses will be there for them, but we have to take care of our workers too,” she said. “There has to be a cultural change — in legislation and even among workers — where abuse isn’t just accepted as ‘part of the job.’”