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Dealing with workplace violence

Stocksy | Sean LockeYep, if you’re a nurse, patient care aide or other healthcare person, you’re more likely to be beaten up on the job than any other person in any other profession. In fact, shouldn’t it be part of the job description?

I’ve been grabbed once and hit once by people who knew what they were doing and were totally oriented. (I say that to differentiate between them and the patients I work with who are brain-injured.) A coworker of mine had her neck broken by a patient. Another was stalked for weeks by a patient’s family member, and had to go to the state board of nursing to answer to false charges of malpractice filed by that person. In each case, management’s response was insipid at best.

It happens more frequently than I think about in my facility: nurses being grabbed, shaken, fistfights breaking out in the hallway.

What’s hard to swallow is that I’ve also seen a higher-up meet with an attacker privately and contracted with him for good behavior. There were no other consequences for his assault of a nurse aside from “Be good or we’ll call security.” “Security” in this case did not equal “cops.”

Now, I understand that we all want to be civilized adults. You cannot, though, change somebody’s behavior in the time that his loved one is in the hospital. If you rely on a behavior contract, you’re only delaying the time until the contractee blows a fuse and starts going off the chain again. That’s exactly what happened in the case above. The final tally was one nurse with a broken nose, one assailant carted off to the pokey by the cops and a whole lot of ’splaining to do on the part of management, who hadn’t solved the problem immediately by throwing the bum out after the first incident.

That’s why I no longer go up the chain of command when it comes to violence against nurses or other people in the hospital. The minute anybody—patient or family member or random visitor—raises his voice, I dial the emergency code number and let the police sort it out. I’ve told every manager I’ve had that if I’m struck, shaken or strangled, I’ll be filing assault charges against the person who does it, and asking for an analysis of how it came to happen.

As nurses, we must take this problem seriously. If my employer, which is rated as one of the country’s best corporations to work for, doesn’t protect us (beyond contracts with people who’ve already shown themselves to be less than stellar individuals), what’s it like in private facilities? What’s it like in county or state hospitals?

I would say “Raise your voice on this issue,” but you’d probably get written up and disciplined for being too loud. Instead, I’ll say this: Be a squeaky wheel. If circumstances warrant it, get the cops all up in somebody’s grill. Don’t be afraid to file complaints with the appropriate folks if you feel your workplace is unsafe.

Be careful out there.

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Agatha Lellis

Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at

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