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PEF to NYS: Stop Workplace Violence

By SHERRY HALBROOK

Of all the important terms and conditions of employment that PEF works to advance for its members, nothing tops keeping them safe from danger at work.

“I am alarmed, angry and very frustrated by the news I have been receiving day after day in the last few weeks,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “One after another of our members is being assaulted on their jobs and it is just not acceptable. The state cannot expect to hold on to its employees when it fails to keep them safe on the job. This must stop!”

What began with news of a nurse resigning because she felt “unsafe” at her job in a state facility, was soon followed by reports from all over the state of members being attacked at work.

“I was notified that a nurse in Region 9 was slashed by a patient with a weapon made from contraband. Then I heard of nurses in Region 2 who were attacked by clients throwing their bodily fluid on them. Then we began to hear of attacks on six parole officers, including an officer in Region 1 and five more in Region 12 who were injured on the job in recent weeks,” Spence said. “There have been multiple prisons locked down because of heightened danger. Earlier this year, a Region 8 office worker was brutally attacked and seriously injured walking to her car in a state parking lot right across the street from the office building where she works in Albany.

“This cannot stand. We will not and must not accept this as ‘business as usual.’ No one benefits from this! The state agencies where this happens are already critically understaffed, and these injuries and attacks only put scarce and valuable staff out on workers’ comp or sick leave. So, it costs the taxpayers money and it impairs services to New Yorkers. But, most of all, PEF members are injured, terrorized and traumatized.

“We will not tolerate this!”

To get an idea of how horrific and traumatic these incidents are for the PEF members experiencing them, consider what happened to PEF Executive Board member Carl Ankrah, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg.

Ankrah, who has worked for the state since 2013, said he was in his office on a late October morning when he heard a knock on the door. He asked who it was and was told that it was a patient, who had just come on the ward the previous day.

“He said that he wanted to come in to talk to me about going home. I said that we had not been able to get an answer at the phone number he had given us of a friend or family member who could come and pick him up. I said that I would need to get a different phone number from him and that I would come out and talk to him when I finished what I was doing,” Ankrah said.

A few minutes later said he walked down the hall accompanied by a nursing student and knocked on the door to the patient’s room. The patient opened the door and asked Ankrah to come inside without the student so that they could speak privately about something personal.

“I told the patient, ‘No. The student is approved to be here. The patient told me a phone number to call and when I lowered my head eyes as I started to write it down, I realized that I was bleeding. I didn’t feel the cut before I sensed the bleeding,” Ankrah said.

A struggle immediately began as the patient kept slashing at Ankrah’s head and neck with what the PEF member later learned was a weapon made from the razor head from a shaver and nails that had all been bound together with linen to a pen he was using as a handle.”

The student summoned other staff to help Ankrah who said, “I was trying to run to the nurses’ station, and the patient was chasing me. He just wouldn’t stop attacking me! I think another staff person was hurt before they were able to subdue him.”

Ankrah suffered a long narrow gash from the corner of his eye, across his temple and his ear from the first slash. He also had cuts on the other side of his face and the back of his neck, among others.

Looking back on it, Ankrah said he now realizes that the attack was premeditated.

“The patient must have smuggled that razor and nails into the center. He should have been searched when he arrived in Triage, but he still had them,” Ankrah said.

Why this patient that Ankrah had barely met chose to attack him, is unknown.

“Thank, God, I didn’t answer my door and let him into my office when he knocked or I would probably be dead. He was trying to get me where there was no one else around. And I was saved again, when I didn’t let him get me alone in his room. He would have seriously damaged me if he got me alone!”

The shock of this totally unexpected attack has left a wound on Ankrah’s psyche even more painful and deep than the cuts to his skin.

“One time is more than enough!” Ankrah said.

Spence and PEF Region 10 Coordinator Darlene Williams who is both the PEF co-chair of the Joint Health and Safety Committee and the chair of PEF’s PS&T Contract Team, said these attacks on members give those negotiations with the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations a deeper dimension of seriousness and urgency.

“We shouldn’t have to come to the bargaining table braced for word that could come at any minute of another attack. Members are just quitting their jobs rather than risk serious injury or even being killed for trying to give New Yorkers the highest quality public services they can,” Spence said.

“Our members have invested long years and a big share of their income in obtaining the college degrees and specialized training and experience required to be in these Professional, Scientific and Technical unit positions,” Williams said. “It’s horrifying to think that any member could lose their life doing their job while we are still butting heads with state negotiators. That possibility is horrifying, but we just can’t duck it. The evidence of this danger and risk is staring us in the face.”

The union is working hard on many levels, from training to labor-management, to lobbying for stronger legal protections to counter these dangers. Watch for more news and information about this in future issues of The eCommunicator.


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