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Bill Aims to Protect Health Care and Social Service Workers

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Pro-worker members of Congress have re-introduced a bill that seeks to reduce workplace violence faced by emergency responders, behavioral health workers, nurses, physicians and other health care and social service workers.

Under the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (H.R. 1309), which was introduced last week, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would require employers to develop and implement plans to prevent on-the-job violence.

“Health care and social service workers face a disproportionate amount of violence at work, and the data shows that these incidents are on the rise,” said Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, who introduced H.R. 1309 and, in 2013, asked the Government Accountability Office to study the trends in violence in health care settings.

If the bill passes Congress, thousands of AFSCME members in the health care and social service professions could find relief from the threats of violence they experience every day on the job.

Mary Florio, president of Connecticut Health Care Associates, NUHHCE/AFSCME, said, “As a registered nurse, I have experienced an assault while tending to a patient. The statistics prove what we already knew. Workplace violence is an ongoing and growing problem for health care professionals. Our co-workers in emergency rooms and behavioral health care facilities regularly interact with patients and their families who are acting out and may become violent.”

There is no shortage of assaults experienced by AFSCME health care, behavioral health and social service workers on the front lines of care.

Mike Yestramski, a psychiatric social worker at a state hospital near Tacoma, Washington, and a member of AFSCME Council 28 (WFSE), shared the devastating story of a patient who attacked two of his co-workers over the span of just a few months.

Yestramski remembers the scene of the first incident. “I wasn’t sure if [the co-worker] was going to ever recover. She was on the floor and there was just so much blood,” he said.

A few months later, that same patient attacked another colleague, breaking the bone around his eye and almost blinding him. Despite making a full physical recovery, Yestramski’s co-worker has since tried to return to work only to leave after the psychological trauma of the attack resurfaced.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people view [health care] workers getting assaulted as just being part of the job,” says Yestramski.

Courtney and a group of dedicated lawmakers are determined to change that.

The bill, which was also proposed last year, is co-sponsored by more than two dozen members of Congress, including Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Although the bill did not pass in previous legislative sessions, Courtney remained confident about its chances in the current Congress.

“We can be assured that this bill is finally poised to move and not just sit on the shelf,” he said.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for later this week.

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Contributing: Kevin Hanes and Mark McCullough.