31% of hospital nurses have reported an increase in violence, up from 22% in March 2021.
Nurses told Insider the tense politics around vaccines and masks may be leading to patient aggression.
1 in 4 nurses faces physical violence on the job, and the hospital is one of the most dangerous workplaces in the country, according to OSHA.
Kevin Romanchik, an emergency room nurse in Michigan, said he's been punched, hit, kicked, spat on, and called "every name in the book" during his 13 years on the job.
Romanchik said he thinks abuse towards nurses has escalated recently because patients are easily agitated. Asking a simple question like whether a patient has received a COVID-19 vaccine can induce anger and aggression, he told Insider.
Once dubbed "heroes" of the pandemic, frontline workers in America are reckoning with increased violence and aggression on the job. Flight attendants are seeing a historic rise in unruly passengers. Shoppers have even killed retail workers for enforcing local mask mandates.
Nurses are not excluded from the worrisome trend. On top of dealing with short staffing and burnout, 31% of hospital nurses across the country have reported a small or significant increase in workplace violence, up from 22% in March 2021, according to a recent survey from the National Nurses United union.
"These nurses are there to help. That's a trauma in itself to feel that now they are unsafe at work and there's that risk of violence against them," Kerry Peterson, an associate professor at the University of Colorado College of Nursing, told Insider. "That can have detrimental consequences."
Why violence has increased towards nurses during the pandemic
Despite being places of healing, hospitals are one of the most dangerous places to work.
Hospitals recorded more than 221,000 work-related injuries in 2019 according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and had a workplace injury rate almost double the average for all private employers.
Nurses, who spend the most time at a patient's bedside, can bear the brunt of the violence. One in four nurses is physically assaulted on the job, according to a 2019 survey by the American Nurses Association. Assaults range from getting cursed at to grabbing and kicking, a 2014 survey of more than 5,000 nurses found.
Erica, a hospital nurse in Nevada, said she suspects the rate of injury towards nurses is even higher, but thinks many nurses do not end up reporting incidents due to fear of retaliation. (Insider agreed to identify Erica only by her first name for her personal safety.)
Last year during the pandemic, Erica co-founded The Last Pizza Party, a nurse advocacy group with 14,000 Facebook followers, to support professionals dealing with the onslaught of COVID-19 cases.
A 2020 NBC investigation found 77% of hospitals in California reported making no safety improvements after receiving an assault report. The assaults against healthcare workers ranged from bruising to fractures to cuts, and happened primarily in in-patient rooms and ERs.
Erica said instead of preventing assaults from happening, some hospitals have resorted to stopgap measures, like giving nurses rape whistles and panic buttons.
Better solutions to decrease workplace violence come from system-wide changes, Erica said. Nurse unions and advocates have drafted legislation to states and the federal government that would criminalize nurse abuse. Erica said hospitals must also provide nurses with enough resources and mental health support to effectively carry out their roles.
Erica encouraged other nurses to get involved with anti-abuse groups, such as The Last Pizza Party, the Silent No More Foundation, and Nurses Take DC. The momentum Erica has seen on social media - including TikTok, where she has 200,000 followers and over 3.5 million likes - during the pandemic gives her hope.
"What COVID did is it highlighted all of the issues in nursing that have been around forever, but it's made them impossible to ignore," Erica said.
Without addressing the growing crisis, however, Romanchik expects more nurses to leave the job, which will lead to the quality of care worsening overall.
"Nursing has been one of the most trusted professions for years now," he said. "So when nurses are telling you that there are problems or things are difficult, the best thing that the public hospital administration can do and local leaders can do is listen."
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