Nurses go public about workplace violence

FOX UNDERCOVER ( -- Nurses from the state's premier psychiatric hospital are going public about workplace violence.

Investigative Reporter Mike Beaudet has uncovered disturbing numbers from the Department of Mental Health about the frequency of patients attacking workers at Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

This all started with a tip that the psychiatric facility is severely understaffed due to the number of employees out of work on disability because of patient attacks.

We tracked down nurses who've been attacked and who worry someone is going to be killed. And they say it's a problem that's only getting worse.

Laurie Grover remembers the assault on her two months ago at the Worcester hospital. The nurse was trying to restrain a patient who lunged at her with a metal shank when a female patient attacked her from behind.

"I'm just trying to protect my head and my face and she literally pulls me by my head up off the floor," she said.

Grover has been out on disability ever since from the 320 bed facility that opened in August of 2012.

The state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital features inviting shared community spaces like the downtown complete with a gift shop, library, hair salon, and community center. The nurses we spoke with say as the facility started receiving more patients proper staffing levels were not maintained.

Chris Dell'erba started working there last October and says patient attacks happen almost on a daily basis.

"Everything from being punched, being slapped, being kicked," he said.

Numbers FOX Undercover obtained from the Department of Mental Health reveal a disturbing pattern of attacks at the facility and we discovered those attacks are on the rise.

Since 2013 there have been 189 assaults on employees that have resulted in days off due to injuries, totaling 5,602 days missed. That's more than 15 years worth of time off in just two years.

And nurses says their complaints have gone unanswered.

"It just infuriates and frustrates me because nothing's getting done," Grover said. "Almost every single person I work with, myself included has been a victim of workplace violence."

Karen Coughlin is vice president of the Massachusetts Nursing Association and has been a registered nurse at Taunton State Hospital for more than 30 years. She says patient attacks are on the rise at all mental health facilities around the state. She also says the facilities aren't staffed properly and lack policies that would help prevent workplace violence.

Adding to the problems in Worcester, nurses say staffing on the second and third shift was cut back in February despite the rising number of attacks.

The Department of Mental Health turned down our request for an on camera interview and instead sent us this statement which reads in part:

"When an infrequent incident between staff and a patient occurs, there are both individual and systemic responses. We rely on a well-trained, compassionate staff dedicated to caring for individuals and ensuring their recovery. Our current DMH Commissioner, Joan Mikula, has been proactive in meeting with hospital management and direct care staff to address concerns."

State Representative Patricia Haddad has been trying for more than a decade to reopen mental health units for difficult to manage patients, which closed more than a decade ago.

When asked if she thought the number of attacks could be reduced, she said, "I think the number of attacks could be reduced if we did a couple of things. If we did the units and secondly if we change how we train our people."

Months later, Grover's physical and psychological wounds haven't healed from the attack. An attack she says could have been prevented, but she fears help won't come soon enough to prevent another.

The two patients who attacked Grover are now facing criminal charges. There are other bills under consideration on Beacon Hill that would also address hospital safety.