They treat us when we’re sick, but now medical workers say they fear for their own health and safety after a rash of assaults at California hospitals. Employees working in healthcare are four times more likely to experience workplace violence than other private employees according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A recent California law aims to address this problem by requiring hospitals to adopt additional safety measures, but after three years, hospital employees tell the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit they’ve yet to see any significant changes.
Emergency department nurse Mawata Kamara witnessed firsthand how dangerous the job can be when one of her patients at San Leandro Hospital became unhinged, destroying property and equipment.
“[The patient] ended up throwing things all over the emergency room, the situation ended up in the parking lot where police ended up being involved and the patient ended up assaulting several police officer,” Kamara told NBC Bay Area.
“Imagine how I felt that this patient was going to be mine and how the experience was going to be. So, the initial response is fear.”
It’s a fear, that seems to be growing throughout the industry. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spoke to healthcare workers from Eureka to Los Angeles who all shared similar stories of workplace violence.
Allysha Shin, RN describes the day she was assaulted while providing care for a patient at Keck Medicine of USC.
Randee Litten, RN was punched in the face while attempting to draw blood from a patient at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka.
A WORK IN PROGRESS
In 2014, state lawmakers passed SB 1299, requiring new hospital safety standards after jail nurse Cynthia Palomata was attacked and killed by a patient at the Martinez Detention Facility. Now, hospitals must report all assaults against workers and develop an effective violence prevention plan or face fines up to $25,000 for the first offense and $132,765 for repeated violations.
Since the law took effect during the summer of 2017, California healthcare facilities reported nearly 23,000 assaults to Cal/OSHA.
While some of those incidents prompted hospitals to make safety upgrades like adding security or installing alarms, 77% of hospitals reported making no safety improvements following an assault.
A representative from the California Hospital Association told NBC Bay Area that it’s difficult for some hospitals to comply with the new workplace violence prevention standards because the law requires hospitals to spend more money without providing more funding.
Still, frustrated workers argue that hospitals should do more to protect employees. In February, county nurses and technicians rallied at a Contra Costa Board of Supervisors meeting after watching assaults rise more than 10 percent in 2019.
“If the law originated here, why then is our administration not taking action. How many more nurses or other county staff have to die or get hurt before this gets addressed,” Robin Hargrave, RN said during public comment.
A spokesperson for Contra Costa Health Services told NBC Bay Area in a statement, “Workplace safety is a priority at Contra Costa Health Services, and we are listening closely to the comments of our employees and labor organizations as we conduct our annual review for our workplace violence prevention plan.”
Workers say they previously reported their concerns about security gaps to Cal/OSHA, but have yet to see any improvements.
“None. We're working on it. That's the response. We're working on it,” Contra Costa County nurse Lisa Day-Silva told NBC Bay Area.
REGULATORS RAMPING UP INSPECTIONS
Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker is in charge of overseeing safety for California’s 18 million employees. With limited resources, Parker told NBC Bay Area his agency uses a priority system when it comes to investigating incidents.
“It's a fairly high bar, but that's based on the fact that we have to do inspections and investigations of workplaces throughout the state of California,” Parker said.
“If we become aware of some deficiency in [a hospital’s] workplace violence prevention plan, we would go out and investigate that.”
Under the new law, Cal/OSHA has inspected 49 heath care facilities and issued 26 fines for violating the state’s violence prevention standards. Despite his agency’s efforts, Parker says it’s still too early to tell whether the new law has made an impact on safety.
“I think that there's more awareness, but, I wouldn't feel comfortable at this point saying that there's been a major impact yet. It's still a work in progress.”
Progress that workers like Kamara say they’ll keep fighting for.
“We're here to provide care, but at the same time we shouldn't have to jeopardize our own safety for it,” Kamara said.