Assaults on healthcare workers

Are assaults an unavoidable occupational hazard in some healthcare settings?

If you’re working in an environment where you are exposed to patients who are suffering from dementia or serious mental illness, it’s impossible to eliminate altogether the risk of assault in the line of duty.

However, just because you’re working in a high risk area doesn’t mean that you won’t be entitled to be compensated if you suffer personal injuries as result of a work-related assault.

In all likelihood your assailant won’t have any significant assets worth pursuing, meaning that your means of securing compensation will be by making a claim against the employer’s liability policy of insurance which is held by your employer.

What are my employer’s duties to safeguard me against assault?

Your employer has a legal responsibility to ensure your safety in the workplace, and to take all steps necessary to minimize your exposure to risk to the greatest extent possible. Any shortcoming in complying with this duty which was the cause of an otherwise avoidable assault will result in an entitlement to be compensated for the pain, suffering and financial loss that you suffer as a consequence.

Because the possibility of assaults in the mental healthcare setting is entirely foreseeable, employers should have the most comprehensive and up-to-date control measures in the form of work resources and systems. Control measures to reduce the risk of attack, or to limit the severity of an assault where violence occurs, should be in place. All staff members should be fully trained in what these are, with regular refresher courses being provided to ensure that everyone knows what the appropriate response is if an assault occurs or is threatened.

Panic buttons in each room where contact with patients will occur and personal alarms should also be made available. If any patient has a history of violence, or is considered to be unstable, healthcare workers should not be placed in a position where they are left alone with the patient. Also, if appropriate, security screens should have been in place to limit contact with potentially aggressive patients.

What should I do if I’ve been assaulted at work?

If you have been unfortunate enough to suffer an assault at work, the first thing that should obviously be done is for you to make sure that you remove yourself from the danger so that no further attack can occur. As soon as you have gotten yourself out of harm’s way, you should make sure that you are fully medically examined by a doctor, so that all appropriate treatment (such as, for example, tetanus shots or disinfection of cuts or scratches) may be administered and any personal injuries that you’ve sustained can be comprehensively documented.

After you’ve received the appropriate medical treatment, make sure to write down a comprehensive account of what happened. You’d be amazed how quickly your recollection of events will become dulled with time. It’s only natural that we subconsciously try to ‘unremember’ traumatic events as a form of coping mechanism, so it’s important that you have prepare a written record of what happened to you as soon as you can after the incident. Make sure to write down when and where the assault occurred, who assaulted you, what other patients and staff members were present, and what injuries you sustained.

If the assault was witnessed by any other co-workers you should also ask them to prepare comprehensive witness statements as these could be of very significant evidentiary value in the event that your employer or their insurers later turn around and allege that you’re not entitled to be compensated for your injuries.

Your employer should have a standard accident report form for you to fill out which should be retained in their accident book. Make sure you do this and also enquire if there are any other procedures that should be complied with where an assault has occurred. For example, if you’re absent from work for more than three days the Health and Safety Authority should be notified about the incident. If you’re the member of a union, seek assistance from your union rep to make sure that you take all appropriate steps in the aftermath of the attack.

If there are any CCTV cameras which were operating in the area where the assault occurred, make sure that tell your employer that you want the footage of your assault retained as soon as possible (some systems overwrite recorded footage as early as a week or two after it’s been recorded) and request a copy of the footage for yourself. If your employer is slow in releasing this footage to you, you or your solicitor can make a formal request under the Data Protection Acts.

Once you’ve received all appropriate medical treatment, complied with all notification obligations and other internal procedures, and ensured that you have taken the appropriate steps to safeguard all evidence required to prove that you were injured by reason of an assault in the workplace, you should not delay in commencing a claim for compensation. If you haven’t properly commenced the appropriate claim process within two years of the date that the assault happened on, your claim will become statue barred and you will lose your entitlement to be compensated, irrespective of how serious your injuries are.

Are there any workplace schemes that I could benefit from if I’ve been assaulted at work?

If you’re the member of a union you should get in touch with your union rep to establish if, in addition to your right to bring a claim for compensation for your pain and suffering, you are entitled to any other benefits if you have been assaulted at work such as, for example, receiving full pay for any periods of absence from work while you’re recovering from your injuries.

For example, if you are a nurse who is employed by the Health Service Executive (HSE) you should explore whether you can avail of the benefits of the scheme known as Personal Injuries Cover for Nurses Working in the Mental Health Services, the terms of which are set out in HSE HR Circular 04/2008.

Likewise, all HSE employees who are absent from work as a result of a serious physical assault by a patient which occurred in the course of their duties are covered by the HSE’s Serious Physical Assault Scheme. The scheme provides full pay based on the earnings you would have earned if still at work and working your normal roster, including basic pay, allowances and premium earnings for a period of up to 6 months for officer grades and 3 months for general support staff. The scheme also includes a number of special extensions for nurses where, if after medical assessment, a return to work is not envisaged within the initial period of cover, the benefits under the scheme may be extended for further periods.