National Nurses United: Utah nurse assault underscores need for national workplace violence prevention standard

What happens when nurses can’t even guarantee our own safety at work? How can we keep our patients safe if we aren’t safe?

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney Kara Porter, left, holds a press conference Thursday August 31 to show previously undisclosed footage of a Salt Lake City police officer assaulting and arresting University of Utah Hospital on-duty nurse Alex Wubbels for following her hospital’s policy on blood draws from an unconscious victim. Wubbels was upset at watching her arrest on the video for following the law and procedures of the hospital.

The nation was shocked to see recent video of University of Utah registered nurse Alex Wubbles being assaulted and arrested for refusing to allow police to take a blood sample from an unconscious patient while he was incapable of consent.

Nurses across the country stand with Wubbels because we know our first job is always to protect and advocate for our patients. There’s no excuse for what happened to this heroic RN, who did not waiver in her patient advocacy, even when the result was being roughly handcuffed and detained.

Given our oath to protect our patients, Wubbles’ assault begs the question: What happens when nurses can’t even guarantee our own safety at work? How can we keep our patients safe if we aren’t safe?

Many people may be surprised to learn nurses face rates of workplace violence higher than any other industry. In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated healthcare workers experience workplace violence at rates 5 to 12 times higher than for workers overall. And the rates are on the rise. Between 2005 and 2014, workplace violence incidents increased 110 percent in private industry hospitals.

In this moment, when nurses and the public are standing together in outrage over our sister being assaulted at work, it’s important to remember that our collective voice can be used to protect not just Wubbles, but also nurses across the country, who face the potential of workplace violence every single day.

As the health and safety director of National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of registered nurses in the country, I cannot count the heartbreaking stories of violence that have impacted nurses around me. One of our nurse members was punched in the eye by an agitated patient, fracturing bones in her face, and causing permanent vision and hearing impairment. Another member, RN Cynthia Palomata, was hit in the head by a patient in 2010. She died from her injuries.

No matter what repercussions there are for a perpetrator of workplace violence (including when that perpetrator is a police officer acting outside the law), those repercussions can never rewind time and prevent an assault from happening. To that end, while we address systemic societal problems that contribute to increased violence, and while we discuss as a nation what it means when police officers act as perpetrators of violence, an immediate, on-the-ground concern for nurses is: What practical steps should our hospital employers take to protect us from harm, right now, today—period?

Fortunately, we have an answer. Our employers must have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan in place — to protect nurses as well as patients and families, given that violence impacts everyone in the vicinity. This plan must include an overall assessment of each facility and its individual unit’s specific needs, measures to prevent violence from occurring in the first place (especially including safe staffing), and training for all staff on exactly what to do in the event of violence.

And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must enact a workplace violence standard to mandate that our hospital employers create such programs.

NNU’s California arm, the California Nurses Association (CNA), has already won a nation-leading workplace violence prevention standard under California OSHA. We’ve successfully petitioned federal OSHA to enact a similar, comprehensive, national standard. We must keep the pressure on OSHA to move forward, given nurses’ lives are at stake.

In the case of Wubbles’ assault, an armed police officer committing the violence understandably complicates matters. However, the training built into this comprehensive workplace violence prevention standard includes education for all staff — including security guards — and also for coordinating agencies, including police departments.

It’s impossible to predict when or where violence will occur, but employers need to listen to nurses, think proactively, and form a clear plan to keep nurses safe.

We can’t rewind time and stop what happened to Alex Wubbels or Cynthia Palomata. But we can move forward knowing the power of our collective voice, especially in this moment of outrage, is a powerful tool to enact change. Let’s stand together to make it happen.

Bonnie Castillo is director of health and safety for National Nurses United, the largest U.S. union of registered nurses.