THE fight against a rising tide of violence towards health workers was strengthened last week with the start of distribution of 30,000 personal security alarms to NHS staff who work on their own.
The action by Health Secretary Alan Johnson is part of a commitment made two years ago and is timely.
But it is sometimes hard to make sense of statistics to get the full picture of violence and intimidation against staff.
It’s estimated that violence against staff costs the NHS £100m a year in terms of extra security, absenteeism, staff training and legal bills.
There has been an annual £30m in the kitty for the last two years and another £30m for 2010/11 to improve safety and security for lone workers such as health visitors, district nurses, doctors and ambulance staff.
Part of the problem has been the reporting of violent incidents by staff themselves and the way statistics are gathered.
From April 1, 2007 to March 31, 2008 there were 70 recorded violent incidents against Kirklees NHS staff. Thirteen of these resulted in minor injuries to staff and 21 involved abusive phone calls.
But in a staff survey last year, just four attacks among 1,144 staff were recorded.
In the same national survey, other authorities registered between 200 and 400 attacks per 1,000 staff – clearly different parameters are being used from authority to authority.
There is a distinction to be made between violence against lone workers and that experienced, for instance, in casualty departments.
MPs were told last week that seven out of 10 weekend visits to A and E departments were alcohol-related. Many erupt into violence, both by injured people and their relatives.
The lone worker alarm system is designed for nurses and other healthcare staff who work in isolation from colleagues and may need the ability to call for assistance when their personal security is threatened.
The i750 identicom devices made by Reliance use Location Based Service (LBS) technology – in other words, the mobile phone transmission network.
The devices look like ID card holders. At a discreet press of a button – or if they are violently removed from the wearer – a signal locates the owner to within 10m and a recording device automatically transmits information that can help the control centre decide what action to take.
The data is recorded in a way that can later be legally used in a prosecution.
Alan Johnson said: “No NHS staff should have to put up with violence, but sadly it happens.
“Lone workers are particularly vulnerable and I am determined to provide them with as much protection as we can to enable them to carry out their valuable work knowing that they have the support they need should their personal safety be threatened.”
The alarms will initially be targeted at community workers who work with patients and their families or associates who have a history of violence, alcohol or drug abuse or clinical conditions which might heighten risks to the lone worker. It will also be targeted at those who work in areas of high crime rates and social deprivation.
Chris Bedford, Health, Safety and Risk Manager at NHS Kirklees said recently: “Many staff feel alienated when they are physically or verbally abused by patients or their relatives and consider it’s just part of the job. They feel there is nothing that can be done.
“We are working to raise awareness and advise our staff so they understand they don’t have to accept this kind of behaviour.
“We want them to know there are alternatives such as private prosecution, civil action and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders which can be taken out on those who threaten them.”
Mike Potts, chief executive for NHS Kirklees said: “The only way we can tackle this problem is head-on. We need to know the full extent of what we are dealing with.
“It’s no good for staff to accept abusive behaviour and just walk away. They have to share their experiences and officially report the incident so we can allocate appropriate resources to address the issue.”