Kansas nurses call for action to protect health workers against workplace violence

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TOPEKA — Kansas nurses are demanding more be done to protect health workers in response to the attack Wednesday at an Oklahoma hospital and rising violence against medical staff.

The shooting at Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa resulted in four deaths and left several more injured. It is a reminder that more protections are needed for health care workers, who were already disproportionately targets of workplace violence before the pandemic, said Kelly Sommers, state director for the Kansas State Nurses Association.

Sommers said her organization would continue to advocate for Violence in the Workplace and Safe Staffing legislation at the state and national levels.

“Our sincerest thoughts, hearts, and tears are with our fellow nurses, health care employees and families regarding the intentional fatal shooting at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, including two physicians, a receptionist, and a patient,” Sommers said. “The truest dedication includes all the employees at the hospital that returned to work after this horrible act of violence directed at staff.”

Workplace violence is a significant problem for health care workers that, while exacerbated by the pandemic, has been ongoing for some time. For example, 2018 federal data shows workplace injuries outpaced other industries drastically with 73% of non-fatal workplace injuries from violence.

A little more than 10% of health care workers missed work because of non-fatal workplace violence. And since the pandemic began, hospital administrators and staff across the country have reported increased aggression fueled by pandemic-related gripes.

That is why KSNA will be in Washington, D.C., next week meeting with U.S. senators and representatives to address the need for violence in the workplace legislation. Additionally, Sommers said KSNA will introduce a bill for the 2023 Kansas legislative session with protections for all health care employees.

“Workplace violence is a serious issue that needs to be addressed for all of us that work in health care facilities,” Sommers said. “Bills must be passed to hold employers responsible to provide the safest environment possible and allow for felony prosecution for violent acts by consumers.”

A bill in the 2022 session would have created new penalties for interference with hospitals and attacks against health workers, giving these actions similar weight to assaulting law enforcement or a first responder. The bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee but did not receive an opportunity on the House floor.

At Lawrence Memorial Health, the most common types of violence are verbal assaults, but sometimes they can boil to the physical level with spitting, scratching, hitting or kicking.

“I think it would probably shock people in our community at the number of times our staff are the victims of violence in the emergency department setting,” said Jan Wiebe, emergency department director for LMH Health in Lawrence.

While the legislation intended to protect health care workers is supported by law enforcement and health care officials across the state, some legislators have been less inclined to get behind it. During the hearing in February, Rep. Boog Highberger was concerned it would not solve any problems.

“Several conferees stated that this bill is going to provide increased protection for our health care workers and if I truly believe that, I’d support it in a heartbeat without any questions,” the Lawrence Democrat said. “What I haven’t seen is the evidence.”

Proponents said it was difficult to present concrete data for protections they do not yet have. Sommers said despite detractors or doubters in the legislature, KSNA would continue to push for meaningful legislation.

“Nurses return to work every single day, even after incidents where we have co-workers who have been injured or disabled by the violence of consumers,” Sommers said. “KSNA will continue to come forward, not just with words, but with real action.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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