BOSTON (CBS) – We like to think hospitals are sanctuaries for care and healing, but that's not the case for many front-line hospital workers, especially nurses, who are increasingly the targets of physical violence.
"I've seen nurses punched, kicked, hair pulled," said Tricia Casey, a nurse at Cape Cod Hospital.
Nurse Paula Murray recalled an emergency room patient at Carney Hospital who went berserk. "He was fighting us, spitting at us, trying to bite us, threatening to kill us, kill our families," she said.
It's a bad problem getting worse – violence in hospitals targeting nurses and other employees.
A recent survey by the International Association for Healthcare Security & Safety found the numbers have jumped 37 percent in the past three years.
"Oh my gosh, everybody's been assaulted that works in the emergency room," said Murray, who's been a nurse in the ER at Dorchester's Carney Hospital for four decades.
How many times has she been assaulted? "Too numerous to count," Murray said.
The last one, in March 2011, was the worst. A man went into a rage in the ER, attacking nurses and security guards. Murray took the brunt of it.
"I got chest contusions, I got a torn left rotator cuff and I had damage to the head of the humerus," she said. "I could hardly breathe."
Like Murray, Tricia Casey is a veteran nurse who has worked 26 years in the Psychiatric Unit at Cape Cod Hospital. Recently she was sexually assaulted on the job.
"I was afraid to go back to work," she said. "I had a terrible stress reaction and I couldn't sleep for about 10 days."
That stress, she said, was compounded by the response from hospital management.
"There was a pretty high-level person that said no, that's part of the job," Casey said. "I put a lot into my job. I care about it. I care about my patients and that made me feel like I was just not worth very much."
Nurses said that's the problem. Many hospital managers don't want to acknowledge the escalating violence against nurses, because then they would have to address it.
"Virtually every hospital has a patient safety committee or a violence prevention committee," said Pat Noga, vice president of clinical affairs at the Massachusetts Hospital Association.
Noga insisted her group's 79 member hospitals are taking action to protect their employees.
But if that's true, why are the number of assaults on hospital employees on the rise?
"There are more patients and families that are coming into our hospitals with behavioral health issues, substance abuse issues," Noga said.
We told her that when we asked nurses if the hospitals they worked for cared about their health and safety, the answer was no.
"I mean I'm really very surprised, because all of the missions of all of our hospitals are really to care for and promote health and safety," Noga said.
Cape Cod Hospital told the I-Team it does its best to provide a safe environment for its workers. Steward Health Care, which owns Carney and 10 other hospitals in Massachusetts, said its staff is trained to de-escalate potentially violent situations.
Complete statement from Cape Cod Hospital:
"The safety and well-being of our employees and clinical caregivers is of utmost importance to us. While we cannot comment on specific incidents due to federal privacy regulations, we do provide training, support, security and supervision to ensure that we are doing our best to provide the safest work environment possible for our nurses, physicians, staff and volunteers.
"We are proud to offer care to everyone who walks through our doors, no matter their circumstances or their health issue, and the healthcare environment is especially difficult dealing with patients and their families during episodes of physical and psychological illness. We are committed to doing our best to protect everyone involved."
Complete statement from Steward Health Care System:
"In Massachusetts, there is a strong commitment among health care providers to take care of all patients who come through our doors, including patients with challenging behavioral health needs, substance abuse issues or recent interactions with law enforcement. Knowing that, we work day in and day out to provide a safe environment for our patients, nurses, doctors and caregivers.
"In the past few years, we have rebuilt many of our Emergency Departments to include separate, designated areas for more challenging patients. We have added security personnel and all ED staff, behavioral health staff and security are CPI (Crisis Prevention Institute) trained to de-escalate situations and protect everyone's safety. We also have a centralized team to identify specialized behavioral health and substance abuse beds so that patients are promptly transferred and receive the urgent care that they need.
"We have worked very hard in this area and we continue to make strides. This is a top priority for Steward Health Care."
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