Apr. 30—Elizabeth Dalton was working as a cardiac intensive care nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital on April 10, 2015, when a patient's father brandished a hunting knife.
Dalton said the man was threatening, irrational, and frightening. "I thought my life was in danger," she said.
When the patient's roommate yelled at the man to put the knife down, Dalton ran past him and escaped.
The man was allowed back into the hospital eight hours later with a reprimand.
"It's time we stopped treating assaults on health care providers as just part of the job," Dalton told members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee at a public hearing Tuesday.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, and Sen. Michael Brady, D-Brockton, S.838/H.1578, would change assaults on health providers, emergency medical technicians or ambulance attendants from a misdemeanor to a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Tucker said the legislation "will set a tone that the assaults on these workers who are trying to do their job will not be tolerated."
The Massachusetts Nurses Association is pushing for the bill. The union is also pushing for a separate bill that would require health care employers to develop and implement programs to reduce workplace violence.
According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, from 2002 to 2013, healthcare workers were four times more likely to experience serious workplace violence than the average private sector worker. Most injuries were caused by patients.
A 2014 survey of more than 3,700 nurses by the American Nurses Association, cited by OSHA, found that 21% of registered nurses and nursing students reported being physically assaulted in a 12-month period. A 2009-2011 survey of more than 7,100 emergency room nurses by their trade association found that 12% of emergency department nurses experienced physical violence during a seven-day period.
Erin Johnson, a nurse at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital who is involved with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said health care workers account for nearly 70% of all non-fatal workplace assaults. She said more than 80% of emergency department nurses have been the victim of workplace violence. A Massachusetts survey found nearly three-quarters of nurses reported that violence was a serious or somewhat serious problem in their workplace.
"As a nurse who has been the victim of, and witness to, violence in the workplace, I can tell you that these statistics are only part of the story," Johnson told the legislative committee. "Behind each assault or act of violence, the physical and psychological trauma inflicted on us is often compounded when we are told either overtly or implicitly that violence is part of our job."
Johnson said because these assaults are classified as misdemeanors, a police officer will only arrest the alleged assailant if the officer witnesses the assault. Otherwise, a nurse has to appear before a clerk magistrate at a "show cause" hearing. Then, the magistrate will decide whether to file charges.
Johnson said nurses are often discouraged from filing charges because the assailant will only get a slap on the wrist. "Why should a nurse who has already been the victim of violence and all that entails take his or her own personal time to pursue charges against an assailant who at the end of the day will face no real consequences for his or her actions?" she said.