Hospitals and clinics are now among America's most dangerous workplaces


Healthcare workers are facing an alarming increase in assaults and shootings, making hospitals and clinics some of the most dangerous workplaces in America. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, violence in the healthcare field was a serious problem, with more nonfatal injuries from workplace assaults than any other profession, including law enforcement. The pandemic has exacerbated this issue, as stressors like public health measures backlash have worsened the situation.

The consequences of this combustible situation are twofold. First, it disrupts patient care, as healthcare workers cannot effectively provide treatment in an environment plagued by violence. Second, it contributes to alarming levels of burnout among the healthcare workforce, many of whom are already exhausted from the demands of the ongoing pandemic.

According to available statistics from 2020, roughly 3 in 4 nonfatal workplace violence injuries involved healthcare and social work professionals. Furthermore, the frequency of injuries from workplace violence in healthcare has been steadily rising since 2011, reaching 10.4 incidents per 10,000 full-time workers in 2018, a 62% increase from 6.4 incidents per 10,000 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is likely that this trend continued during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of the pandemic on violence against healthcare workers is not limited to the United States alone. A recent review published in Public Health highlighted that the pandemic has exacerbated the global scale of the problem. The review estimated that nearly 8 in 10 healthcare workers worldwide were involved in an assault or other violent incident during the health crisis. Additionally, a study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine last year found a link between higher local COVID-19 case rates and an increase in violent incidents involving patients within a particular hospital.

Researchers point to various factors contributing to this worrisome trend. The unprecedented stress caused by the pandemic, its detrimental effects on individuals' mental health and home life, and flaring political tensions are all likely factors. Furthermore, healthcare workers themselves attribute staffing shortages to backups and poorer patient outcomes, which can contribute to frustration and potentially violent incidents.

News headlines from the past year demonstrate the severity of the situation, with reports of healthcare workers being increasingly subject to gun violence. For example, Scripps Health reported that at least one staff member is attacked on the job every day across its health system. A recent survey found that 40% of healthcare workers experienced workplace violence in the last two years. Tragically, incidents including shootings have resulted in fatalities, such as the death of a security guard at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, and a hospital worker being shot and killed by a coworker at VCU Medical Center North Hospital in Richmond, Virginia.

To address this issue, hospitals are taking steps to enhance security and prevent violence. These efforts include identifying security risks, training staff on violence prevention, and using counselors to de-escalate tense situations. Moreover, some hospitals are beginning to invest in AI technology to detect guns entering buildings. However, the topic of arming security guards with handguns or tasers remains controversial, as it raises concerns about patient safety.

To improve safety in healthcare settings, there are ongoing efforts in Congress and state legislatures. For instance, a bill introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin would require all health providers to implement a plan to prevent and protect their employees from violent incidents. Additionally, the Joint Commission, the primary accreditation organization for U.S. hospitals, added a workplace violence standard last year to guide hospitals in developing effective violence prevention systems. These initiatives aim to make healthcare environments safer for workers and patients alike.   

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