In recent years, health care facilities across the nation have experienced rising levels of assaults — both verbal and physical — often taking a toll on the emotional and physical well-being of health care staff.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, incidents of serious workplace violence are four times more common in the health care field than in private industry. As a result, many health care facilities are stepping up efforts to fortify their security plans and develop effective prevention strategies. 

When behavioral health admissions and visitor aggression began increasing at Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky., health care leaders took a multilayered approach to protect staff from aggression. 

All staff, including physicians and security officers, were trained on verbal de-escalation strategies, a combination of techniques and methods intended to reduce a patient’s agitation and aggression. A core group of individuals also were educated on nonviolent crisis intervention.

“We’ve learned the importance of training and education of front-line staff who are better prepared to address potential violence,” says Erik Martin, vice president and chief nursing officer at Norton Children’s Hospital, a 271-bed free-standing pediatric care facility. “It starts with early recognition of when a situation might be starting to escalate and knowing who to tap into and who to call to address those issues. And then, when it does escalate, knowing how to intervene.” 

Security officers are now armed and educated to safely use Tasers, which has helped them to de-escalate certain incidents. For example, when a patient recently charged at a staff member with a knife, a security officer deployed a Taser to safely stop the attack.

“This allowed us to take the knife for safekeeping, get the patient to a safer environment and prevent any harm from occurring to our staff,” Martin says.

With the rising number of emergency room (ER) visits and contributing factors like COVID-19, ERs are experience rising levels of violence across the board. 

At Norton, health care leaders have strengthened their relationship with the local police department and now staff their emergency department 24 hours a day, seven days a week with an off-duty police officer. The strategy has been effective, Martin says. 

“Our emergency department staff will tell you that they are confronted with fewer instances of patients or parents acting out and experience less episodes of disrespect,” Martin says. 

“The mere presence of a police officer has created an atmosphere where communication is more respectful,” he continues. “When tension is rising or voices are escalating, the police officer rounds through the area, and their presence alone can often deter things without any additional intervention.”