Opinion: Colorado lawmakers should focus on prevention, not criminalization, to protect health care workers from violence

It’s no secret that our healthcare workers have faced unprecedented challenges over the past few years, from caring for the sick to pandemics to staff shortages to high attrition rates. burnout. An Oct. 12 story in The Colorado Sun detailed another challenge is the alarming increase in violence against health care workers in Colorado.

Data specific to the actual incidence of workplace incivility, bullying and violence is limited due to challenges in consistent reporting. However, a 2022 survey from the American Nurses Association Foundation of more than 11,000 nurses across the country found that 60% of nurses had experienced harassment and intimidation, and 29% reported incidents of violence.

As executive director of the Colorado Nurses Association (CNA), I work every day to advocate on behalf of nurses, the largest and most trusted group of professionals in our health care system. Our work on behalf of all Colorado nurses is to ensure that these academically and clinically prepared professionals can provide the care each of us needs and deserves when illness strikes.

That’s why CNA is supporting a bill in the upcoming Colorado legislative session that is laser-focused on reducing the risk and preventing workplace violence.

Nurses choose this profession because they have a strong desire to help people and make a positive impact on patients’ lives. They want to love their jobs, and they want nothing more than to do their jobs safely and effectively. Health care workers deserve dignity, respect and safety at work. They should not be afraid to go to work.

Undoubtedly, we need action to keep health care workers safe. A survey of CNA members and non-members in August indicated that nurses’ priorities for workplace safety are adequate staffing, education and professional development in de-escalation techniques, and pare -equal and reliable response teams to incidents of incivility, bullying and violence.

The proposal before state lawmakers would require hospitals to create violence prevention plans based on recommendations from frontline workers and the most up-to-date data on whether how and why violence occurs in their facility. It will also require hospitals to provide workplace violence training to workers, which includes proven de-escalation tactics to help workers protect themselves. Finally, it would ensure that health care workers are cared for after an incident by requiring facilities to offer a variety of resources, including mental health care.

As the Suns report, there are some current efforts to curb workplace violence in health care facilities by increasing criminal penalties for assaults on health care workers. While these efforts may be well-intentioned, they are unlikely to prevent violence. Assaults are already a crime, and we know of no data proving that increased sentencing reduces incidents of workplace violence.

Not only is there no evidence base for policies that increase criminal penalties when a health care worker is assaulted, but these policies disproportionately affect those with behavioral health issues, people with disability, and people with neurological conditions such as epilepsy, dementia and others. In addition, racism and implicit bias in our criminal justice system do not affect people of color. Black Coloradans make up 5% of the state’s residents but 17% of the jail population and 18% of the prison population. This law will only make this crisis worse.

Further punishing these already vulnerable populations after an incident does not make us any safer, and these types of policies place health care providers with the duty first and foremost. cannot harm their patients in an ethically compromised position. Many health care workers may not feel comfortable threatening legal action against their patients because they know it could result in a felony charge that would have a negative impact on their patients’ overall health and possibly lead to a worsening of their condition. . We need to give these workers the tools to keep their workplace safe that doesn’t involve anyone going to jail.

While some may be tempted to threaten punitive action, it is more important to us that any legislative action taken makes significant changes to the work environment to prevent violence in the first place.

We need a research-supported, prevention-oriented solution to protect health care workers. Healthcare workers strive to keep us healthy and safe amid unprecedented challenges, often putting their health at risk while battling burnout in high-intensity environments. They deserve real solutions to keep them safe at work.

Colleen Casper, DNP, RN, MS, is the executive director of the Colorado Nurses Association and a long-time nurse leader and hospital administrator in Colorado. Her work has always been about increasing nursing’s voice in organizational policy and quality improvement.

The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of the columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom.Read our ethics policy for more on The Suns opinion policy. Learn how to submit a column. Reach the opinion editor at opinion@coloradosun.com.

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