Health care workers are trained to help others — but increasingly, those workers are the ones needing help, as patients turn violent and lash out.
"I've experienced and been witness to my colleagues experiencing verbal abuse, sexual assault and harassment and physical violence," said Maggie, a registered nurse in Colorado of six years.
Maggie agreed to speak with Scripps News but asked for her last name to not be used because of safety concerns.
"But I've been bit, hit, grabbed, and pulled," Maggie said. "I've had urine thrown on me, and semen thrown on me. And I've witnessed others who have been seriously and physically assaulted and groped, also. It's unfortunate that we're faced with not providing an incredibly high level of care when we're in these situations. It's a reality we understand and experience when we go to work."
What Maggie thought was a surge of attacks during the height of COVID-19 hasn't slowed down.
In a 2022 survey by National Nurses United, 48% of the more than 2,000 respondents said violence against health care workers was up in their facility.
"It's broader than just nurses, it's all providers," said Colleen Casper with the Colorado Nurses Association.
In Denver, the Colorado Nurses Association has been working with lawmakers to get some relief.
"Nurses are five times more likely to experience violence at work than any other worker, which shocks people," said Colorado state Rep. Eliza Hamrick.
Hamrick sponsored a bill this year that would require health care facilities like hospitals and nursing homes to set up violence prevention committees and offer safety training.
Those facilities would also need to provide mental health support to workers on the front line.
"This is why this bill is coming forward, because these are people that care for us and we need to make sure that their voices are heard loud and clear at the facility level," Hamrick said. "So, they feel safe to go to work and they feel part of the process for the nonviolent prevention policies at their facility."
Colorado health facilities are required to report violent incidents to the state. But a new proposal would add some sharper teeth to that requirement. According to Hamrick, failure to do so could result in the loss of their state license to operate.
"We have lots of anecdotal stories and evidence, but the reporting and tracking of the incidents is not required federally," Casper said.
Advocates say knowing the full extent of the problem is essential to coming up with a solution, including how to head off attacks before they happen.
"It really is important that all of us at the bedside have the skills to recognize and deescalate prior to escalate," Casper said. "And we don't want to get into a power struggle. We want to be able to reduce the triggers.
Workers like Maggie say their futures depend on it.
"My physical person is how I make my living," Maggie said. "If I were to be injured at work to where I couldn't work, that would severely hurt my family and our financial situation."
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