Nurses have been punched and kicked over the years but their attackers have faced little in the way of repercussions, advocates for nurses say, on the eve of an expected House vote on a bill to toughen penalties for anyone who assaults on-duty health care workers.
The bill (H 1696), which has languished for years in the Legislature, would punish individuals who assault nurses, nurse psychologists, occupational therapists and physical therapists with jail sentences between 90 days and 2.5 years or fines up to $5,000.
Current law punishes assaults on emergency responders, ambulance operators and ambulance attendants.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association, citing a worsening situation, hopes recent high-profile attacks on health care workers will tip the scales in their favor.
“There’s been a number of highly publicized cases in Massachusetts of this issue coming to the forefront. The Legislature’s becoming more aware of it,” said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the MNA. “We have an epidemic of violence. Nurses are getting punched, kicked, attacked on a too-frequent basis.”
Schildmeier pointed to increasingly crowded emergency rooms, where patients and family members, frustrated with long waits, are “striking out at the first person they see.”
“We have a much more violent society,” he said.
The association cites a decade-old Occupational Safety and Health Administration report that found that health care workers are assaulted 12 times as often as workers in other private sector industries. In that report, OSHA officials say health care-related assaults are likely underreported because of a perception that they are part of the job.
The MNA also points to a 2004 survey showing half of Massachusetts nurses reported they had been punched within the last two years, and more than 25 percent reported being regularly pinched, scratched, spit on or having their wrist twisted. More than 1,000 calls to 911 were made from inside Brockton Hospital between May 2006 and May 2007, according to the group.
The Massachusetts Hospital Association supports added protection for nurses, but a spokeswoman said the organization would prefer the legislation be expanded to protect “the entire care team.”
“We just thought it was somewhat limited,” said the spokeswoman, Christine Baratta, who said MHA has urged lawmakers to “broaden the umbrella.” Baratta said she was unsure if the organization would support an amendment to that effect during the House’s Wednesday debate.
Rep. Michael Rodrigues, the bill’s sponsor, was not available for comment. The Massachusetts Medical Society did not respond to a request for comment.