12:25 PM Eastern - Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Stop violence that is too close to home

Rebecca3.jpgIn an ongoing effort to stop workplace violence, SEIU nurses and other healthcare workers are blogging about their experiences and concerns related to violence on the job. This first such blog is by Rebecca King Morrow, RN, SEIU Local 1021.

On October 23, 2010 there was tragic news in the San Francisco bay area. A psychiatric technician, Donna Gross, was killed on the job at Napa State Hospital. A mentally ill patient at the facility allegedly strangled her. Napa is a state hospital for the mentally ill that has 2,400 employees for 1,160 patients, of which 995 are forensic patients referred by the courts. Her death was a sad reminder of the unspoken danger health care providers face.

Then just days later, on October 25, 2010, a registered nurse was attacked at the Contra Costa County Jail at Martinez. Cynthia Palomata, RN was struck in the head with a lamp by a violent inmate who was out of control. On the 28th, life support was withdrawn and Cynthia died from the assault.

There was more to the tragedy and it hit way too close to home for many SEIU 1021 RNs. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Cynthia had worked at San Francisco General Hospital for 15 years. The newspaper went on to say that Cynthia left SFGH after she injured her back while lifting a patient. The Chronicle stated the inmate, "grabbed a lamp - brought into the jail by nurses to help them read paperwork - and hit her in the head, knocking her unconscious."

How many systems in how many ways failed this nurse?

First, I thought of her back injury which, with proper equipment and staffing, should have been preventable. Then I thought about how the security systems in the jail failed her.

I think what bothered me the most was, why do nurses have to provide their own lamp in order to do their job? The tool became a lethal weapon and perhaps the jail should have been responsible for providing adequate safe light. Too often, we are using gum and scotch tape to piece together worksites because we have given up on administrative/facilities support.

I also worry that in an attempt to cover their systems failure that Cynthia or some other nurse at the jail is going to be blamed for this tragedy. Somehow the culture of medicine is known for blaming the targets of violence.

Since these tragedies, there have been outcries and a state legislator has stepped forward to introduce legislation. I keep thinking state legislation could be helpful but national legislation could help nurses all over the country.

These are just two tragedies among thousands in a country which has failed to address violence as a health care issue. The evidence shows that workers in the health care sector are at greater risk of violence than workers in any other sector. We have to change, not only the laws, but also the health care culture that accepts violence as just part of the job.

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