Taking legislative action to reduce workplace violence in healthcare

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Last November, the U.S. House of Representatives took a vote that received little notice amid the din of politics in Washington, D.C., but nonetheless represented a historic event for America’s embattled healthcare workforce.

Nurses, doctors, social workers and others have been a relentless force in the movement to seek protection from the epidemic of workplace violence in healthcare settings. Thanks to them, the House passed H.R. 1309, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, in a bipartisan vote of 251-198.

Evidence from sources like the Government Accountability Office, Joint Commission and American College of Emergency Physicians shows that violent workplace incidents aren’t random, but are part of a widespread and escalating trend. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare and social service workers are five times more likely to suffer injuries from workplace violence than workers in other settings, and violent incidents in these workplaces have increased by 80% in the last decade.

Following publication of this evidence, I drafted H.R. 1309 to address the epidemic of workplace violence against healthcare and social service workers. I first introduced the bill in the previous 115th Congress back in 2018, and since then have worked across the aisle to build the bipartisan coalition that came together to pass H.R. 1309 in the House in November.

If made law, it would direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue enforceable requirements for maintaining safety and preventing violent attacks against this workforce within 42 months. OSHA has long had guidelines for employers in hospitals and other healthcare settings, but employers aren’t required to follow them. Given the escalating rates of violence and the fact that OSHA hasn’t effectively addressed this emergency, H.R. 1309 is needed so that a standard is established and enforced in a reasonable time frame.

While I wish that it weren’t necessary for Congress to pass legislation for OSHA to act, the reality is that it can take upward of 20 years for OSHA to issue a standard without congressional action. During past workplaces safety crises, like the spread of HIV and hepatitis from insufficient needle safety, Congress has passed legislation to force OSHA to issue protective standards. My legislation takes this same approach and calls for an interim final standard within one year and a final standard within 42 months.

A few weeks before the House vote, I received a powerful reminder of the consequences of unchecked workplace violence in healthcare settings. In September, I had an unannounced visit from Gene Sausse of Metairie, La., who traveled to Washington to share the story of his sister, Lynne Sausse Truxillo. Lynne was a nurse in Baton Rouge, La., who in April 2019 saw a coworker being attacked by a patient in the hospital psychiatric unit where they worked. Lynne tried to intervene, and the patient turned, grabbed her and drove her head into a desk, causing her to pass out and fall to the floor. Her injuries were too critical for doctors to save her life, and she died just days later.

As Gene stated in a letter to me, “As a small-business owner in New Orleans, I have firsthand experience with the complex and often burdensome nature of government regulation … and I support fewer regulations in certain circumstances. However, in the six months since Lynne’s death I’ve learned how gravely and disproportionately vulnerable healthcare workers are to acts of workplace violence against them. The data, stats and facts are undeniable on the subject. There’s practically a news story every day somewhere in America about it. It is unconscionable that less care is given for the health and well-being of those who care for us when we need it most.”

Lynne’s story isn’t uncommon, as medical personnel are at the front lines of treating patients caught in the vortex of the opioid epidemic and behavioral health crises gripping the country.

The House of Representatives recognized the danger facing our caregivers and came together in bipartisan fashion to pass H.R. 1309. Now it’s up to the Senate to listen to America’s doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, social workers and EMTs who all supported this bill. Senators need to act to protect the people who care for us all when we need it most.

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