Bill Would Address Violence Against Health-Care, Social Workers

SEATTLE – A bill in Congress to address workplace violence for health-care and social-service workers is moving closer to a vote in the House. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration finds health-care workers were four times more likely than average private-sector workers to face violence in the workplace between 2002 and 2013. House Resolution 1309 would direct OSHA to require health-care and social-service employers to create and implement prevention programs. 

Mike Yestramski – a psychiatric social worker at Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Washington – says there's an assumption that violent incidents will happen in his line of work – and workers need to be prepared.

"With the right education, with the right training, with the right procedures, you know, the majority of those can be eliminated or at least mitigated to a lower level,” says Yestramski, “provided that we put the emphasis on what we need to do to make that happen."

Yestramski says he's seen specialized training work to reduce assaults, but facilities usually lack funds and resources to implement it on a large scale. 

HR 1309 passed out of the House Committee on Education and Labor this week. Opponents say the bill is moving too fast. They point out that it excludes hospitals, and could create duplicate anti-workplace-violence rules.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal – D-King County, is one of the 176 cosponsors – including six from Washington – supporting the bill. She says workplaces need interim rules to curb violence while OSHA works on its own, and adds the rules would be tailored to the needs of each facility. 

In a hearing this week, she recounted stories of a woman who had her thumb bitten off at work, and Christa Butters, a nurse at Western State Hospital who was assaulted by a patient with a history of violence.

"A patient punched her from behind, knocked her down and then stomped on her head, threatening to kill her,” said Jayapal. “As a result of this horrific violence, Ms. Butters can't work. She has continuing medical needs and is receiving weekly sessions with a speech therapist, and mental health support for the trauma she experienced."

Jayapal says this assault was preventable, noting hospital management could have made different decisions based on this patient's history about where to place the person so that staff was kept safe.

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