Workplace violence endangers staff, cuts careers short, undercuts services
By SHERRY HALBROOK
As more PEF members and retirees read or hear about the union’s call for the state to protect its employees from workplace violence, they are coming forward with their own stories of being assaulted and violence they face on the job.
Some say they have been repeatedly assaulted, others say the level of danger and violence caused them to resign or retire early. The effects of these assaults leave lasting scars on the members’ psyches and careers that can continue long after the physical injuries and wounds heal or are at least stabilized.
As if the risk of violent assault that can happen at any moment without warning isn’t bad enough, members tell PEF that too often managers have shown little or no support for them following a very violent attack, and are dismissive of the members’ suggestions for improving safety.
“As their union, PEF has been working in every way it can to curb this violence and to support our members’ efforts to be safe and those who are trying to heal and deal with the shock and pain that often follow these violent attacks,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “But the ultimate duty and responsibility for keeping them safe lies with their employer. The state cannot duck this duty. Is it any wonder that its agencies have trouble recruiting and retaining professional, scientific and technical employees? If the state kept its employees safe and really focused on preventing violence, it could save taxpayers’ money that it is now spending on workers’ compensation claims, overtime, temps and per diems and even to repair or replace damaged property. That money could be spent to raise pay and improve recruitment and retention.”
Like a ‘war zone’
One example of the terribly violent and routinely dangerous conditions that some PEF members face on their jobs can be seen in the extreme physical damage to a state facility and its furnishings. The people who are ripping this place apart are mentally ill juveniles sent there to be stabilized before being discharged back into community-based care. Their maximum stay, which is usually funded by Medicaid, is 30 days. But one look at the total destruction of every wall and furnishing that isn’t bolted to the floor shows just how un-therapeutic this environment is, where the young patients are allowed to run wild.
Members told PEF that staff are afraid to interfere with this violence because they may be charged by the state Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs with harming the child. For instance, if a client is attacking you and you raise your arms or use your hands to fend them off, and the attacker is accidentally scratched by a ring you are wearing, you may be charged with abusing the client. These youngsters learn quickly what they can say to get staff members into trouble.
Beating or kicking holes in the walls is one kind of expensive physical damage to property, but when the children crawl through those holes to enter a locked medications storage room to steal powerful meds, they greatly increase the danger to themselves and others.
Another factor here is a trendy new program at the state Office of Mental Health called the “Yes” program which trains staff members to avoid saying, “No,” to the children.
As if all of that unbridled violence wasn’t stressful enough, the council leader said PEF members are reluctant to come to the PEF division’s office to ask questions or complain because of all the security cameras installed in that hallway.
“PEF members are afraid that management is watching to see who comes to our union office, and that managers may retaliate against them for just coming here,” the council leader said.
No one benefits
“The state has created a ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation here,” Spence said. “It’s a ‘Catch 22’ that makes them feel like they cannot possibly win and that it is dangerous just to ask for help.
“This situation isn’t benefitting anyone. Our members are being injured and feel their careers as professionals are in constant jeopardy,” Spence said. “Tax dollars are being needlessly wasted, and worst of all this is not a therapeutic environment that helps children stabilize and heal. I’m told that typically a half dozen or so of the children are involved in the wild and uncontrolled destructive rampages, and that is not healthy for them. It can’t be a healing environment for the others who need calm and a sense of security and peace to deal with their issues and recover. No one wins here and everyone is losing!”
Retire to escape
That’s just one state workplace. What about PEF members who work elsewhere?
Nancy Cook was a psychiatric nurse and PEF member who worked at Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center in Utica and at Hutchings PC in Syracuse during her state career. That career ended when she retired from SUNY Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse.
“I was punched in both shoulders during two separate incidents and in the face in another incident,” Cook recalled. “The left shoulder punch prompted me to retire earlier than planned. I needed extensive rotator cuff surgery for a complete tear in the rotator cuff and labrum, with tendons ripped off the bone. The patient didn’t cause these serious injuries, but may have exacerbated the condition.
“The worst incident occurred after I medicated a patient who didn’t want it,” Cook said. “Three security officers and the only male staff member (the patient’s RN) on the unit, struggled holding the patient down, so I offered to give the injection. After security left the unit, I returned to the nurses’ station. Ten minutes later the patient quietly entered the nurses’ station and wrapped his hands around my neck. I tried to run. Our male staff member happened to walk in at that time and jumped on the patient’s back. He and the patient ended up falling forward and knocking me to the floor with them on top of me! I struggled to get free, but the patient had a firm grip on my ankle and was trying to bite me. He was HIV+!
“Finally, I kicked his hand, which loosened his grip and I got free. I ran out the door and locked myself in the bathroom,” Cook said. “With all the commotion, we had worked our way from the nurses’ station, through the Med room and into the employee lounge. The patient spotted a bottle of bleach and began throwing bleach at staff. Mind you, all staff working that evening were women in their 60s and the male staff member was also that age.”
The terrifying incident left more than just physical damage to her body. Cook said, “I suffered PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result of this incident for several months, but I did not seek treatment. I forced myself to return to work the next day, otherwise I feared I would never go back!”
Adding insult to injury, Cook said, “My supervisors did not support me after the choking incident. They called a meeting the next day and asked what we could have done differently to prevent the occurrence. Staff asked if we could lock the door to the nurses’ station, but we were denied.
Try to keep going
“I never lost any work time for these incidents,” Cook said. “I returned to work the next day, although I didn’t want to. I was definitely traumatized!”
That feeling of a need to “soldier on” is common among PEF members who say they feel they must go back to work as quickly as possible because they don’t want to risk being too afraid to return, or because they feel guilty about not working their shifts and worrying that their co-workers will be mandated to work even more overtime to fill in those gaps.
Cook said that was also a concern of hers.
“I would also like to mention staffing levels,” Cook added. “When I retired, staffing was at its lowest levels. I understand today it is far worse. Staffing levels must be increased. If management finds that it’s ‘not in the budget,’ I recommend assigning ‘top-heavy’ management RNs to work the units. That will end having them sit around chatting while the few nurses assigned to the unit run around like chickens with their heads cut off! Increase staffing levels NOW!”
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