Assaults and abuse the daily norm

A University of Wollongong study of two Illawarra hospitals found that 25% of ED nurses experienced a physical assault at least once a month.

Illawarra RN Nerida Grant is no stranger to aggression from intoxicated patients. Nerida has worked in emergency departments throughout New South Wales and the Northern Territory for the past three years.

“It’s complicated caring for someone who is highly intoxicated. Some people have long histories of alcoholism and they are not at a time in their lives where they want to receive support or treatment,” she said. “Often these patients can be very hostile to receiving treatment for their alcohol-related injuries. Even the basics like checking blood pressure and pulse are difficult when someone just wants to sleep off their intoxication.

“It creates a battle between health staff and the people who are coming in because they don’t want to be there. I remember being really frustrated by that and people telling me to f*** off and leave them alone. It is a very combative and physical working situation.”

A recent survey of ED staff in two major hospitals in the Illawarra region uncovered high levels of alcohol-related verbal abuse and physical assaults against hospital staff. Seventy-one of 91 staff members interviewed felt that this type of violence had increased since they had begun working in the ED.

The 2011 study, Experiences of emergency department staff: alcohol-related and other violence and aggression found that 80 of the 91 participants reported being verbally abused at least once a month and 39 reported this as a daily occurrence. Twenty-three had experienced physical assault at least once a month.

These figures don’t surprise Nerida Grant. “As nurses we really use our bodies. Our bodies are really on the line. We use them to lift people and move people, we are in the close physical space of patients and sometimes that is dangerous and sometimes that can feel really threatening. If you have been assaulted in the course of doing your job and have to go back and do it again, it is really scary,” she says.“It is a really tough place to work and one way of processing that is to not process it. To shut off that it happened. We are not very good at communicating and supporting each other to talk about our experiences in the emergency departments.”

Which is why Nerida is supportive of the Last Drinks campaign and its goals. “Any initiative to tackle our society’s drinking problem is positive and necessary. The effects of this problem are dumped into our emergency departments daily.

“We do suffer the effects of a problem that doesn’t just belong to the individuals who are drinking or to the hospital system that is treating them, but to all of us as a society. We, as nurses, are supported to protect ourselves. There is training and there is security. But there is only so much that hospitals can do. It is about tackling the problem outside the hospitals and outside the police stations and taking it into the broader community and making it everybody’s responsibility.”