Workplace violence, rising even before the pandemic, is up 14% at N.J. hospitals

A a registered nurse works on a computer while assisting a COVID-19 patient

In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo, a registered nurse works on a computer while assisting a COVID-19 patient. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers were hailed for their efforts to combat the virus. For a time, during citywide lockdowns, they were even cheered daily with the ritual banging of pots and pans.

But a report on workplace violence at New Jersey health care centers shows that, in addition to long hours and overcrowded wards, medical workers also had to deal with physical and verbal abuse at an increasing rate.

New Jersey hospitals say there has been a 14.6% increase in violent incidents in the workplace over the last three years, increasing steadily from 8,691 in 2019 to 9,202 in 2020 to 9,962 last year, according to data released by the New Jersey Hospital Association’s Center for Health Analytics, Research and Transformation. In 2021, that translates to an average of 27 workers being physically or verbally attacked every day.

More than half of those incidents were related to physical abuse, an 11% increase over the past three years. Verbal abuse accounted for 44% of incidents, up 25% since 2019.

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NJHA President and CEO Cathy Bennett said “the terrible irony is that those who dedicate their lives to healing others are the targets of increasing violence and aggression,” adding that one can only speculate as to why, and the degree to which pandemic-era tensions and polarization played a role.

How the surge in COVID-19 patients may have influenced the uptick in violence against health care workers remains unclear. As the omicron wave peaked, more than 6,000 people were being treated in New Jersey hospitals.

The report cites “anecdotal reports” from health care workers who say “the stress of the pandemic and frustrations over related mandates and precautions fueled aggression directed at workers. Much more research is needed to fully understand perspectives on pandemic experiences and how they potentially facilitated violence in the workplace.”

“Our goal with this report is to provide reliable data on the depth of the problem and prompt a much-needed public dialogue on our collective responsibilities to keep New Jersey healthcare workers safe,” Bennet said.

Patients were the most often perpetrators of violence, accounting for more than 8,300 incidents in 2021, followed by co-workers (868), and patients’ relatives (701). The majority of incidents took place in hospital emergency rooms, with 96% of hospitals reporting the ER as the area where violent incidents most often occurred.

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