Local | Perspective
September 11, 2017 at 6:07 PM
They are routinely yelled at, spat at, pummeled, kicked, scratched and even stabbed by the people they're trying to save.
In many states, being a nurse is more dangerous than being a police officer or a prison guard. It's a profession with a stunning amount of violence.
The video of Utah nurse Alex Wubbels getting roughed up by a Salt Lake City detective that went viral last week shocked America.
But nurses everywhere are like — oh, that's just Monday.
"It's very rough out there," Maryland nurse Joanne Ogaitis told a panel of Occupational Safety and Health Administration representatives this year when she testified about the daily verbal assaults and monthly physical assaults she and her colleagues endure.
The part of the Alex Wubbels video that worried most of America, of course, was the police abuse of authority and overreach.
But what may have been lost in that outrage was that this level of violence — not by police, but by patients — is business as usual for nurses.
Just last week, a nurse in Arkansas was pushed down a flight of stairs by a man arguing with medical staffers.
In June, emergency room nurse Elise Wilson was stabbed multiple times by a patient in her Southbridge, Mass., hospital because the patient was unhappy with his medical care.
And in May, two nurses in Geneva, Ill., were taken hostage while caring for an inmate. One of the nurses was beaten and sexually assaulted at gunpoint during the standoff.
And those are just the cases that make news. Nurse assaults occur at most hospitals and clinics every month.
It's easy to think crime scenes and battlefields when we talk about violent occupations, but the rates of workplace violence in health care and social assistance settings are five to 12 times higher than the estimated rates for workers overall, according to a Government Accountability Office report from last year.
After a spate of workplace violence a year ago that included a patient in South Carolina who attacked 14 nurses, the American Nurses Association issued a zero-tolerance policy on workplace violence.
"Health care professionals have a duty to provide care that keeps people safe, alleviates suffering and restores health," wrote Pam Cipriano, president of the American Nurses Association, which is based in Maryland. "But when health care workers fear the threat of personal harm from attack and injury, their focus on the patient is undermined — and so is the U.S. health care system."
And that's not even the part that makes nursing one of America's most dangerous occupations. Damage to their own bodies — from lifting and moving patients — leaves nurses with more injuries than construction workers.
When it comes to attacks, more than 75 percent of the nurses questioned in a recent survey said they had been abused — physically and verbally, by patients, those trying to get to patients or family members — on the job.
Our society honors and celebrates the sacrifices of officers and warriors, but nurses are still fighting for protection, standards and recognition.
Not surprising, in a profession that's 93 percent female.
A lot of states are making it a felony to assault a nurse, Cipriano said.
This is after years of lobbying for better safety measures and protections by folks such as Cipriano.
In Massachusetts, Elise's Law, which is named for the nurse who was attacked in June, is already on the fast track to set state standards for workplace protection. Legislators were working on this months before Wilson was stabbed.
Nurses in Massachusetts were attacked more frequently than police or prison guards. When association members testified about the violence epidemic this spring, they said nurses had been threatened with scissors, pencils or pens, knives, guns, medical equipment and furniture in the past two years alone, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
There are at least 26 states with workplace safety standards for health-care facilities approved by OSHA, according to the organization.
But there are no broad, federal standards. A nationwide health-care workplace safety law isn't necessarily a goal, Cipriano said. But continued state-by-state efforts are achieving change.
They're asking for things such as better lighting, escape routes and furniture that's bolted down, so it can't be thrown around. (Yes, it's that bad.)
Nurses also want a cultural shift in how their job is viewed. The female-dominated field is rarely seen as dangerous or heroic. Angels, yes, they're called angels.
But nurses are warriors, too.
"There has been an erosion of respect," Cipriano said. She's seen a steady increase over the years in the abuse nurses take. And often, because they're in these high-stress situations, because their ethos is all about a patient's comfort and safety, they simply take it.
"We have to dispel that notion," Cipriano said, "that being assaulted is just 'part of the job'. It is not."
When Alex Wubbels screamed "you're assaulting me" as she was being forced into a police car in Utah on that video, she was also speaking for thousands of other nurses, too.
It's time to listen.
Read more Petula Dvorak: