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New Workplace Standards to Curtail Workplace Violence in California Hospitals

25 October 2016
The workplace appears set to be safer for health workers in California hospitals, with the approval of new rules by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) which would make it compulsory for hospitals and other healthcare facilities to establish violence prevention protocols, with the active involvement of the workers.

This development has been welcomed by the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) and the California Nurses Association (CNA), which are both PSI affiliates. The two unions have raised demands for greater protection of health workers against workplace violence for several years, particularly after the strangling of a nurse by a patient in 2010, at a state-run psychiatric hospital in Napa.

As Kathy Hughes, a registered nurse and spokesperson for the SEIU Nurse Alliance of California points out, “unfortunately, [violence] is sort of a daily occurrence.” But, as she added, “violence shouldn’t be a part of the job”. Pursuing this goal of a violence-free workplace in healthcare facilities, the California Nurses Association sponsored a bill two years ago in the California state legislature that would lead to strict regulations aimed at curbing such hazards, by this year.

Earlier in March, the United States Government Accountability Office presented the dreadful picture of violence faced by workers in the course of delivering healthcare to the US Congress. In its report titled Workplace Safety and Health: Additional Efforts Needed to Help Protect Health Workers from Workplace Violence , it pointed out that “workers in healthcare facilities experience substantially higher estimated rates of nonfatal injury due to workplace violence compared to workers overall”. In 2011, which is the last year comprehensive data is available for, the “number of nonfatal workplace violence cases in healthcare facilities ranged from an estimated 22,250 to 80,710 cases”.

This dangerous trend was identified eleven years ago as a challenge to effective delivery of health services by workers. In the Framework Guidelines for Addressing Workplace Violence in the Health Sector Training Manual published by the ILO, WHO, PSI and ICN, we observed that, while workplace violence “affects all categories of workers in just about all sectors…the health sector is at major risk due to fundamental characteristics of the services delivered and the present work environment” is characterised by the strain of neoliberal reforms and social instability.

The CNA and SEIU however show that we can change this, if we take action. Health sector unions have to actively influence policy and legislation so that protocols and frameworks needed for curtailing workplace violence can be put into place. The California Hospital Association comprising physicians and employers of health workers took a position against the new regulations when they were being debated by law makers in 2012. But the unions argued their case and mobilised popular support for the bill.

The new California standards could serve as a national model if these two unions are backed by workers, through actions, and unions in the health sector across the United States. It would not be the case of a one-cap-fits-all approach. The cutting edge of the standards is that health workers play a central role in assessing workplace violence risks leading to injury prevention plans.

The new standards would thus help curtail violence at the workplace when they come into effect in 2017, and also expand workplace democracy in health facilities in California. 

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