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 in recent years, from caring for the sick through the pandemic to staff shortages and high levels of burnout. An Oct. 12 story in The Colorado Sun reported yet another challenge on the troubling increase in violence against health care workers in Colorado.

Data on the true prevalence of workplace indifference, bullying and violence are limited due to the challenges of consistent reporting. However, in a 2022 American Nurses Association Foundation survey of more than 11,000 nurses nationwide, 60 percent of nurses experienced indifference and bullying, and 29 percent reported incidents of violence.

As the Executive Director of the Colorado Nurses Association (CNA), I work every day to advocate for 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 trained professionals are able to provide the care that each of us needs and deserves when illness strikes.

That’s why CNA is supporting a bill during Colorado’s upcoming legislative session that will laser-focus 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 job and want nothing more than to be able to do their job safely and efficiently. Health care workers deserve human dignity, respect and safety in their work. They shouldn’t be afraid to go to work.

We undoubtedly need action to ensure the safety of healthcare workers. A survey of CNA members and non-members in August indicated that nurses’ priorities for occupational safety include adequate staffing, training and professional development in de-escalation techniques, and consistent and reliable response teams for indifference, bullying and violence.

The proposal before state lawmakers would require hospitals to develop violence prevention plans based on recommendations from frontline workers and the latest information about how and why violence occurs in their facilities. It also requires hospitals to provide employees with workplace violence training that includes proven de-escalation tactics to protect workers. Finally, it ensures that health care workers are cared for in the aftermath of an accident by requiring facilities to provide a variety of resources, including mental health care.

According to the Suns report, efforts are currently being made to curb workplace violence in health care facilities by increasing criminal penalties for assaulting health care workers. While these actions may be well-intentioned, they are unlikely to prevent violence. Assault is already a crime, and we know of no data to confirm that increasing the penalties would reduce incidents of workplace violence.

Not only is there no evidence for policies that increase criminal penalties when a health care worker is assaulted, but those policies disproportionately affect people with behavioral health problems, people with disabilities, and people with neurological conditions such as epilepsy, dementia, and others. Additionally, racism and implicit bias in our criminal justice system disproportionately affects people of color. Black Coloradans make up 5% of the state’s population, but 17% of the prison population and 18% of the people in prison. This legislation will only make this crisis worse.

Punishing these already vulnerable populations after the event does not make us safer, and such practices place health care providers, whose primary duty is not to harm their patients, in an ethically compromised position. Many health care workers may feel uncomfortable threatening legal action against their patients, knowing that doing so could result in criminal prosecution, which would have a negative impact on their patients’ overall health and possibly worsen their condition. We need to give these workers the tools to secure their jobs so no one goes to jail.

While some may be tempted to threaten penalties, it is more important to us that any legislative actions taken make meaningful changes to the work environment to prevent violence.

We need a research-based, prevention-focused solution to protect healthcare workers. Healthcare workers have worked hard to keep us healthy and safe amid unprecedented challenges, often putting their health at risk as they battle burnout in high-intensity environments. They deserve real solutions to keep them safe on the job.

Colleen Casper, DNP, RN, MS, is the executive director of the Colorado Nurses Association and a longtime nurse leader and hospital administrator in Colorado. Her work has always been to increase the voice of nursing in organizational politics and improve quality.

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 to learn more about The Suns opinion policy. Learn how to submit a column. Contact the opinion editor at vélemín@coloradosun.com.

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