Can I Be Fired for Defending Myself Against Violence at Work?

Carolyn Buppert, NP, JD

Disclosures

September 08, 2010

Questions:

Can a nurse be fired for defending himself or herself against violence in the workplace? And how should physical violence be reported? Can nurses make a police report themselves if they are victims of violence at work?

Response from Carolyn Buppert, NP, JD
Attorney, Law Office of Carolyn Buppert, PC, Bethesda, Maryland

In general, in the absence of a signed employment contract, an employer can fire an employee for any reason or for no reason, unless the firing is for reasons of race, color, sex, religious beliefs, or age. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 established these protections.

Therefore, no job protection is specified under state or federal law for employees who defend themselves against workplace violence. However, self-defense is a defense to a charge of assault. If, for example, a patient assaulted a nurse in an emergency department, and the nurse pushed the patient to the ground, and the patient charged the nurse with assault, the nurse would defend his or her actions by invoking the necessity to defend himself or herself. In general, an individual may use whatever degree of force is reasonably necessary for protection from bodily harm. Whether this defense is valid is usually determined by a jury.

In an ideal situation, an organization would not fire an employee who was assaulted at work and would have a process in place for preventing and reporting violent incidents. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) encourages organizations to have written workplace violence prevention programs.[1] OSHA says these programs should, at a minimum:

  • Create and disseminate a clear policy of zero tolerance for workplace violence, verbal and nonverbal threats, and related actions. Ensure that managers, supervisors, coworkers, clients, patients, and visitors know about this policy. Ensure that no employee who reports or experiences workplace violence faces reprisals.

  • Encourage employees to promptly report incidents and suggest ways to reduce or eliminate risks. Require records of incidents to assess risk and measure progress.

  • Outline a comprehensive plan for maintaining security in the workplace. This includes establishing a liaison with law enforcement representatives and others who can help identify ways to prevent and mitigate workplace violence.

  • Assign responsibility and authority for the program to individuals or teams with appropriate training and skills. Ensure that adequate resources are available for this effort and that the team or responsible individuals develop expertise on workplace violence prevention in healthcare and social services.

  • Affirm management commitment to a worker-supportive environment that places as much importance on employee safety and health as on serving the patient or client.

  • Set up a company briefing as part of the initial effort to address issues such as preserving safety, supporting affected employees, and facilitating recovery.

Usually, a supervisor is the first contact for report of violence, followed closely by the facility's security service. However, depending on the severity and duration of the incident, an employee might opt to call 911 first or shortly after asking coworkers to put in a call to the supervisor. If help from supervisors or facility security does not arrive promptly, an employee definitely should call local police.

The Massachusetts Nursing Association has created a brochure about workplace violence.[2] The Association makes the following points:

  • Report any impending and actual acts of violence at work to your supervisor immediately, regardless of who is the victim and whether injuries have occurred. Reports must be written as well as verbal.

  • Call the police immediately. If necessary, file a police report as soon as possible. Take someone with you when you file the police report, preferably coworkers who are familiar with the event.

  • If the assault is from a patient, document the patient's behavior in the medical record. This is the most essential legal documentation.

  • Seek medical attention even if there are no "obvious injuries." Be sure to document any physical injuries and your emotional state. Follow the healthcare provider's recommendations for treatment and work restrictions.

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