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Published on March 06, 2019

James B. Cole column: Keeping health care workers safe, too

Americans were shocked and saddened recently by the news about a well-liked and respected young nurse practitioner whose life was taken during a violent assault at a Wisconsin hospital.

I mourn for Carlie Beaudin along with her family, friends, and colleagues who are stunned by this needless loss of life.

People who choose health care as a career have an acute sense of mortality, and they are all too accustomed to illness and injury among patients, including those who are scarred by violence and seeking life-saving trauma care in hospitals.

Such encounters are an occupational reality.
Another occupational reality for health care workers is that they are far more likely to be victims of workplace violence than people employed in many other industries.

As someone who has spent my career in health care, I have seen firsthand the impact of workplace violence on people victimized by it. There is a definite human toll.

According to U.S. Department of Labor data, “private-sector health care workers in in-patient facilities, such as hospitals, experienced workplace violence-related injuries requiring days off from work at an estimated rate at least five times higher than the rate for private-sector workers overall.”

To help reduce violence against health care workers, the commonwealth’s elected leaders took an important step during the recently concluded General Assembly session.

Legislators this winter overwhelmingly approved Senate Bill 1395 sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell of Fairfax County to enhance criminal penalties for people who threaten harm to a health care provider engaged in performing his or her duties in a hospital or medical facility while rendering emergency care.

Howell’s legislation makes threats of violence against health care workers a Class 1 misdemeanor.

The version approved by the legislature includes specific exemptions for patients under an emergency custody or temporary detention order to account for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Unfortunately, too many dedicated health care professionals disproportionately encounter verbal threats, intimidation, harassment, violent outbursts, and physical assault at the hands of patients and their family members.

Indeed, figures from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) indicate that approximately 75 percent of the nearly 25,000 workplace assaults reported annually occurred in health care and social service settings.

As startling as those figures are, they may not reflect the totality of workplace abuse encountered by health care workers.

In fact, there is research that suggests health care workplace violence victims don’t always report being verbally or physically accosted.

Several factors contribute to underreported workplace violence. Chief among them is health care workers’ belief in the mission of serving patients.

It is not uncommon for people in medical crisis to become agitated or emotional and lash out, sometimes unintentionally. When this happens, many health care workers simply dismiss such events as a routine part of the job. In a way, there is a certain nobility to that response from health care workers who prioritize the needs of distressed patients over personal concerns.

However, prioritizing patients doesn’t mean we should ignore the physical and emotional well-being of health care workers who devote themselves to caring for patients in their hour of need.

For health care providers, caring for patients remains our primary concern.

Yet we also owe it to the dedicated health care workers who are on duty 24/7/365 to take steps to protect them as they help heal others.

That’s why I support SB 1395 and it’s why I traveled to Richmond several times this winter to testify in favor of its passage.

This legislation is a commonsense proposal to protect health care workers and I pray it is ultimately signed into law.

James B. Cole is the longtime president and CEO of Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington County, Virginia. Contact him at

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