Physical assaults on health workers on the rise, new study shows

Attacks on health workers including nurses and ambulance crews are on the rise as staff shortages help to create a “hostile” environment, a new study suggests.

Research for Unison revealed an increase in physical assaults of almost 10 per cent in England last year, with a “staggering” 21 per cent increase in hospitals with an A&E department.

There were 56,435 assaults in 2016/17 compared with 51,447 the previous year in NHS trusts which responded to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request submitted by health magazine HSJ on behalf of the union.

Trusts treating fewer patients within 18 weeks of referral saw the biggest increase in assaults, as did those struggling with financial deficits.

Unison head of health Sara Gorton said: “Across the entire NHS, staff shortages are harming patient care and helping to create a hostile environment where health workers are increasingly at risk of being assaulted.

“It’s no accident that trusts where the pressures seem the most extreme – where there are huge financial deficits or where it’s a struggle to meet growing demands on services – have seen the steepest rise in the number of attacks. This desperate situation is only set to worsen as the squeeze on resources gets tighter.

“Now that there is no NHS or government organisation collecting data on assaults nationally, the picture is growing increasingly unclear. The safety of staff, who care for us when we are sick or injured, and their patients should be paramount.”

Unison gave details of a number of incidents, including a healthcare assistant on an orthopaedics ward where a patient with mental health issues shut the door of his room, grabbed her by the arm, put her in a headlock and would not let go.

A registered nurse said that staffing pressures are making the situation worse, revealing regular abuse. She has been slapped by patients and recently saw a colleague punched in the face.

A male nurse in an acute admissions unit witnessed a colleague being threatened with a knife, saw a patient throw a chair through a window in anger, another aggressively threatening staff trying to prevent him from smoking on the ward, and said he has regularly been scratched and bitten by dementia patients.

An NHS England spokesman said: “It is completely unacceptable that a nurse, paramedic, porter or any member of NHS staff should be assaulted physically or verbally as they care for patients.

“NHS England continues to work with trusts and any of our staff affected, to help the police and other authorities do everything needed when an assault takes place.”

Additional reporting from the Press Association.

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