The deadly gunfire that erupted at a Minnesota medical clinic earlier this month sharpened the pangs of a Louisiana man’s grief even as it hardened his resolve to better protect health care workers from workplace violence.

Gene Sausse owns a small business in New Orleans. He’s also the brother of a nurse who died almost two years ago in Baton Rouge from injuries sustained on the job. When a patient attacked another nurse, Lynne Sausse Truxillo, 56, rushed to help and was beaten. Sausse went looking for answers in the dark days after his sister’s death. The clinic shooting in Buffalo, Minn., sadly illustrated what he found: Health care workers face a far higher risk of workplace violence. The incidence also increased significantly from 2011 to 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I was shocked to find out how often it occurs,” said Sausse, who was inspired to become an advocate. “We need to be protecting what we can and doing what we can, instead of this violence being an open secret in health care. Anybody can be the next victim.”

Just 26 states, including Minnesota, have laws on the books targeting health care workplace violence prevention. Of the existing laws, many confer protection only to a small sector of the workforce, such as emergency room doctors, noted a recent American Journal of Managed Care article.

With 24 states lacking any such law, Congress clearly has work to do. Lawmakers should move swiftly to replace this ragged patchwork of regulations with stronger, comprehensive safeguards.

Sausse quickly saw the need for federal action and connected with Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn. In late 2019, a bill authored by Courtney — H. R. 1309, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act — easily cleared the House, but the Senate did not act on a related bill.

That’s unfortunate. The Courtney bill would have taken a systemic approach to protecting workers by directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “to issue enforceable requirements for maintaining safety and preventing violent attacks against this workforce within 42 months,” Courtney wrote in a 2020 commentary published in Modern Healthcare. “OSHA has long had guidelines for employers in hospitals and other healthcare settings, but employers aren’t required to follow them.”

If the bill is enacted, health care employers would be required to have violence prevention plans, provide training and promptly investigate incidents. Retaliation or discrimination against employees who report threats would also be prohibited.

Courtney told an editorial writer that Congress has the discretion to step in and push OSHA to act. There’s a precedent. When AIDS emerged as a public health crisis, Congress passed legislation pushing OSHA to swiftly set national standards for handling bloodborne pathogens to protect workers.

Courtney plans to introduce his violence prevention bill again soon. It deserves broad support in both chambers. “The story in Minnesota is sadly just another example of why this is the time” to act, Courtney said.

The bill’s passage is far from assured. While nursing organizations supported it, the hospital industry opposed the measure. A 2019 letter to Congress from an American Hospital Association executive said hospitals already have safety plans in place and that new standards were not needed.

Among those voting against Courtney’s bill in 2019: Minnesota Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn. Rep. Pete Stauber, also a Republican, voted for it. High-profile support from Stauber again would be timely and appropriate. Emmer and Hagedorn need to rethink their opposition.

Sausse backs the Courtney legislation, too. The difference between OSHA guidelines and requirements is “a world apart,” the New Orleans man said, and remedying the gap is “a matter of life and death. You hear about health care workers being heroes now with COVID. Well, put your money where your mouth is and get this done. My sister was a true hero, and she lost her life because she was caring for other people.”

This post was first shared on Star Tribune, Make the workplace safer for health care employees, on February 20, 2021.

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