‘People called us heroes’: Pa. nurses sound the alarm on unsafe working conditions

Mary Adamson, an ICU nurse, and president of the Temple University Nurses Association, led a rally for more nurse staffing and in support of the Patient Safety Act on September 23, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mary Adamson, an ICU nurse, and president of the Temple University Nurses Association, led a rally for more nurse staffing and in support of the Patient Safety Act on September 23, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nurses at hospitals across southeastern Pennsylvania came out Thursday afternoon to protest what they call unacceptable and unsafe working conditions.

“The nurses and the techs here, we walked through fire,” said Temple University Hospital ICU nurse Mary Adamson. “People called us heroes for a couple of months, and then everything went away.”

Adamson, who is also president of the Temple University Nurses Association, which represents more than 1,300 nurses, said she’s seen her colleagues leave the hospital in droves, and that the attrition has led to unsafe conditions for patients. Those two dynamics — poor working conditions and unsafe environments for patients — create a negative feedback loop for nurses.

“They don’t want their license being revoked, they’re afraid of being hurt, and they just can’t deal with the stress of not being able to give their patients what their patients need,” Adamson said.

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Concerns about safe staff-to-patient ratios predated the pandemic for nurses in Philadelphia and across the country. But the high intensity needs of COVID-19 patients have made the crisis worse. And nurses say the relentlessly chaotic conditions are causing career professionals to seek jobs at hospitals with better staffing ratios, or leave the field altogether.

“This is the worst it’s ever been in health care,” said Adamson. “I’ve been in and around hospitals for 30 years. This is the worst.”

Temple University Hospital cares for more COVID-19 patients than any other individual hospital in Philadelphia, and its trauma unit has absorbed more patients since the closing of Hahnemann Hospital in 2019. Adamson said while a standard patient load for a medical-surgical nurse would be four to five on a busy day, many nurses are juggling up to seven. She said the units are short on patient care assistants as well, who normally help with simple tasks like taking patients to the bathroom, which can eat up the time of more skilled nurses.

Pharmacy tech and union representative Carlos J. Aviles joined the protest outside the hospital on September 23, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Pharmacy tech and union representative Carlos J. Aviles said it’s about more than just the ratios. It’s also about being so short-staffed that people have to work extremely long hours. While they receive overtime, Aviles says no amount of additional pay can account for how tired or unfocused the staff may be when they’re consistently run down.

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“Unfortunately, when we’re fatigued and we’re not at our best, things get overlooked,” said Aviles. “I will not be able to give the time and attention to your vitals, to your needs, assessing what’s going on and catching what I normally would during a normal workday.”

Pennsylvania law prohibits health care facilities from regularly mandating overtime for workers, and Aviles said his colleagues have filed numerous complaints with management when they have been forced to work overtime. A Temple representative did respond to a request for comment.

Temple University nurses protested poor working conditions and compromised patient care outside their hospital on September 23, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In part because they feel they’ve exhausted their efforts negotiating for better conditions with individual hospital management, Pennsylvania nursing unions are working together to advocate for the Patient Safety Act in Harrisburg, which would mandate specific nurse-to-patient ratios in respective departments. Two versions of the bill have been introduced with bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Neither have yet moved out of committee.

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