Virginia workers launch new campaign to address violence in health care workplaces

Posted at 7:10 AM, Apr 23, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-24 13:58:41-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Rex Riley says he chose to pursue a career in nursing to help others. While high levels of stress can come with the job, he says he never imagined safety would be a concern until Labor Day of last year, when a patient experiencing a mental health crisis, came into the emergency room at a Bon Secours facility.

“They started to become erratic and started screaming and then they threw a water bottle at me,” Riley says.

Moments later, the patient’s companion caused the hospital to go into lockdown when he started making threats against the staff.

“This person had a firearm and threatened to shoot us up,” Riley says. “Fortunately that didn’t happen but that put terror in a lot of people’s lives and heads,” Riley says.

While Riley says he received overwhelming support from his employers at Bon Secours, he says he’s never forgotten that day, or the impact that it had on his colleagues and patients.

“I had a woman, and I walked into her room, and she was just crying,” Riley says choking back tears. “Excuse me, it’s going to make me cry because I was thinking about how you tell someone it’s going to be alright, because you don’t know. You don’t know.”

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Riley says the court system dismissed the case, which left him and other healthcare workers feeling more victimized.

According to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, many healthcare workers fear for their safety in the workplace and are requesting that better safeguards be put in place to combat the growing threat of violence from patients and hospital visitors.

“It walks through the door everyday,” says Bon Secours security guard Corey Sheffield, who was strangled by a patient in March of 2023. He says despite resources and training to help hospital staff deescalate dangerous situations, hospital workers don’t have the protection of metal detectors or the presence of police on campus.

“We see a constant flow of the same patients coming in for the same problems and acting the same way,” Sheffield says. “The hospital almost feels backed into a corner. We have to help them, that’s what we do and that’s what our job is, but how do we get these people to respect our policies and our procedures?”

In a new public service announcement, the VHHA is launching a campaign called “Help Us, Help You,” to draw attention to the heightened threats facing healthcare workers today.

The organization says healthcare workers are five times more likely to experience workplace violence injuries compared to workers in other industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data also suggests instances of workplace violence against healthcare workers are rising.

“During COVID, I started to hear stories from many, many physicians and nurses and other healthcare workers,” says U.S. Senator Tim Kaine. (D-Virginia)

Kaine has proposed legislation that would give hospital staff enhanced legal protections against workplace assaults. The “Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act” is now pending in Congress.

The VHHA and hospital members have also worked with the Virginia General Assembly to strengthen protections for healthcare professional performing their jobs. Under state law, it is a Class I misdemeanor to threaten to kill or harm a healthcare professional rendering care in all healthcare settings.

“These people have so much on their shoulders, and we rely on them so much,” Kaine says. “We don’t want to give people reasons to leave the profession or not to go into the profession because we’re going to need these people more, not less in the years to come.”

Rex Riley says he welcomes more laws and enhanced protection that would offer healthcare workers some peace of mind.

"I feel like you could get punished more for misbehaving on an airplane, then you can in a hospital,” Riley says.

While he says his love for patients will always override any fear he faces, he knows healthcare workers can no longer afford to stay silent.

“We need all of us and if we work together and talk about things and we are out there advocating for ourselves, I think things will change,” Riley says.

The VHHA has developed a Workplace Violence Prevention Toolkit with information about applicable state laws, background information, and detailed guidelines to support organizations in developing and sustaining workforce violence prevention programs.

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